Reporter's Notebook

To Make It Matter

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We linger on the flesh.

The “we” in that sentence is the journalist, of course. But it’s also you — or the version of “you” that “we” might be writing for.

On my last day in Kathmandu, six days after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake shook 7,500* people to death in this small, landlocked country, I decided to return to the waters of the Bhagwati. This river slows to a trickle as it passes one of the country’s treasures, the Pashupatinath Temple.

I had been here before — my first day in Nepal — and had stood watching grieving family members cremate loved ones. Flecks of ash, particles of the once-living, floated across the warm winds, catching in the fine hairs of my arm. Acrid smoke stung the back of my dry throat.

Looking back, my notebook seems chaotic. The words are mere triggers for observations, fragments of sights each straining to fit a story I might tell.

Goats walk the riverside
Spare bricks crowd the footbridge
Bodies wait in garbage bags
They [the men tasked with cremating] drop the fire into the mouth first.

Arriving in the hangover of a natural disaster encourages this kind of struggling. There is a searching for sense amid signals too broad and significant. The stories one longs to find, to record and mark as their own, seem instead to linger, trapped somewhere just beyond touch.

So I was there, my final afternoon, at the river. My sleepless body wired to failure on caffeine, the sun’s scratching heat on my bare neck. I just wanted to sit. I wanted to feel still in a place made nervous by sudden movement. I wanted to understand, through mere presence, what grievous loss might feel like.

I wanted to be more heart rate monitor, less tape recorder.

Some say death is supposed to tell us something about this life. That, perhaps, these stories of the living are only complete when coupled with stories of the lost. To avoid this would be like trying to trace a circle with only half the ink you need.

But I worry. I worry that true artifice lives in a misheld belief: that we might understand tragedy through broad and ill-timed questions asked of the agrieved.

We forget that questions are always easier. They are the hard-shelled armor we shelter behind. Questions are what make our world stop shaking. Not theirs.

I tried to remember this.

I did.

But my eyes drifted downstream to the scurried activity, the cooing of an amassing crowd, and the shimmer of light as it reflected off strange, new, naked bodies.

So I went.

I lingered.

I bled news from this flesh.


*The Times of India has reported casualties in excess of 8,000 (as of Friday, May 8, 2015)

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Published, Reporter's Notebook

Half Century

For the last two weeks, I’ve been in Vietnam reporting on the 40th anniversary of the Vietnam War. The product of this trip will be apparent in the days and weeks to come, but I wanted to mark an important anniversary today. On March 8, 1965, the US 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade landed on Red Beach, a crescent-shaped stretch of land in Danang, Vietnam. The date is somewhat arbitrary, of course, as US “Advisors” had been humping through Vietnam since at least 1959, but the marine landing signaled a clear escalation in the use of American power —an escalation that would lead America and Vietnam into a decade-long cycle of violence.

For this generation (and my generation) Vietnam has become little more than an anecdote —a reference, often trite, used to highlight a government’s penchant for military and political mistakes (i.e. Iraq or Afghanistan). Over the past weeks, and with the help of countless sources, guides, historians, and witnesses of this history, I have tried to color in that crude outline of the war in Vietnam. Not just because anniversaries demand reflection, but because wars linger long after the final shots are fired. For the two men pictured below (and for millions more) the war continues to shape their lives.

In the coming weeks, I’ll try and explain why.

Tan Hau, 17, was born both physically and mentally disabled, complications attributed to his father’s exposure to Agent Orange —the chemical defoliant sprayed by the US military across Vietnam.© Adam McCauley

Tan Hau, 17, was born both physically and mentally disabled, complications attributed to his father’s exposure to Agent Orange —the chemical defoliant sprayed by the US military across Vietnam. © Adam McCauley

Tuan, 29, lost his right arm and damaged his left hand at age 16 when a cluster bomb, dropped by the US military between 1965 and 1975, exploded.© Adam McCauley

Tuan, 29, lost his right arm and damaged his left hand at age 16 when a cluster bomb, dropped by the US military between 1965 and 1975, exploded. © Adam McCauley

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Published

Amid a terrible week for journalism, The New York Times has confirmed David Carr, the newspaper’s media critic, has died. Carr was a critical voice in the journalism landscape, one that cut across medium and media offering candid, and sometimes harsh, takes on the latest, greatest and worst that our discipline generates. While the details of his death have not been confirmed, one fact is known: David Carr collapsed in The New York Times newsroom before being rushed to St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital. For the many readers who awaited his byline each week, it is small consolation to know he left us doing what he (and we) loved most.

The irreplaceable David Carr, dead at 58

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Reporter's Notebook

While I’m traveling at the moment, I wanted to send a quick update on one of 2015’s steadily developing stories.

As Boko Haram gobbles up more airtime and political talking points, interested readers should keep their eyes in the upcoming AU Summit in Addis Ababa. Defense One has a helpful overview here.

For context on point three (AU efforts to address Boko Haram) Defense One also has a recent discussion with AFRICOM’s commander on the potential role for US forces in the battle to contain the regional terrorist group, with leadership calling for a full counterinsurgency plan.

This, however, comes just two weeks since my last piece tackling the changing role of US engagement in West Africa. Read the full treatment here.

With the Nigerian elections just over two weeks away, there is much more to come.

FTR: Updates on West Africa

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Reporter's Notebook

The Good Fight

In defense of liberty, all battles appear worthy. As the world reacts to last week’s mass murder in the office of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine based in Paris, questions of “what next?” abound. News today, reported in TIME, suggests the politics of security have transmuted France’s official narrative:

Yves Trotignon, a former top counter-terrorism official in DGSE, France’s equivalent to the CIA, told TIME on Monday, “There is a strong feeling that this is not over.” Trotignon, now a private terrorism consultant, says he was in close contact with French intelligence officials investigating last week’s attacks. He says most believe that although the instigators of last week’s attacks might all now be dead, “there is a strong feeling that maybe something more dangerous is ahead.”

A shift from grief to vigilance is only predictable. But as British authorities framed the Paris attacks against the background of expected terrorist operations, specifically “a group of core al-Qaeda terrorists in Syria … planning mass-casualty attacks against the West“, one gets the sense that “Je suis Charlie” might become the means instead of the end.

“Emergencies demand rapid action,” wrote Michael Ignatieff, in his book The Lesser Evil, which explores the challenges for democracies in responding to terrorism. “Presidents and prime ministers have to take action first and submit to questions later. But too much prerogative can be bad for democracy itself.”

In emergencies, we have no alternative but to trust our leaders to act quickly, when our lives may be in danger, but it would be wrong to trust them to decide the larger question of how to balance liberty and security over the long term. For these larger questions, we ought to trust to democratic deliberation through our institutions.

But in the aftermath of a terrorist attack, government actions often leave the citizen fearful of enemies unknown and unknowable, and unable to discern just what is being done in his or her name. At the very moment when a state should engage its demos directly, it appears least likely to do so. Sadly, that nagging sense of being ignored stirs the very marginalization that makes violence—as nihilistic and destructive as its expression can be— more likely. For France, Europe and the rest of the world, let’s hope our support for the liberties of speech and expression do not hasten actions that curtail those same liberties for others.

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Photography

Next stop: Taipei

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Reporter's Notebook

This weekend’s recommendations both come from The New Yorker:

Screen Shot 2014-10-11 at 10.33.03 AMGeorge Packer enters the privacy-obsessed world that surrounds Laura Poitras, the filmmaker and first collaborator with Edward Snowden. Her new documentary, Citizenfour (which takes its name from Snowden’s first pseudonym) opened on Friday in New York but Packer’s profile takes the reader back to the final few days of editing in Berlin, Germany. Packer writes: From the first e-mail she received from Citizenfour, she disappeared into a world of secrets from which she is only now emerging. “I was sucked into the narrative in a way I have never experienced before,” she said, “and probably will never experience again.”

 

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Patrick Radden Keefe’s stunning reporting and construction carries the reader deep into the underworld of insider trading. Reconstructing the relationships between a doctor with information, a trader looking for leads, and a billionaire (Steven A. Cohen) looking for profit, Radden Keefe’s piece unravels like a novel. I’d include a short quote from the piece, but seriously: just read it.

Weekend Reads

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The pain we will not see

In August, The Atlantic published as piece titled: The War Photo No One Would Publish. The story looks at the fate of a single photograph taken by Kenneth Jarecke back in 1991. At the time, Jarecke was on assignment with TIME, corralled (as most journalists and photographers were) in the “pool” system, established by the Public Affairs Office of the US military. These protective outfits were designed to provide members of the media a “front-row seat” to Operation Desert Storm. In late February, as the Iraqi military signaled retreat, hightailing it across the Kuwaiti desert for the border, US air forces struck one of these Iraqi convoys leaving a mess of mechanical and human remains strewn across the wind-blown sands. This was the landscape Jarecke stumbled upon on February 28, 1991.

That afternoon, Jarecke did what any photographer would do: he worked the scene, documenting a discrete moment in time —archiving, visually, an event that owed its arrangement to war’s consequence. One photograph was particularly striking. Jarecke captured the charred upper body, arms and head of an Iraqi soldier, trapped inside a bombed out truck. While Jarecke filed his images soon after, American audiences wouldn’t see the photograph for nearly a month —a delay owed, among other things, to editorial disputes and myriad interpretations of decency or suitability.

While many of the sources interviewed in the piece believed censorship was a mistake, the article’s main meditation on civic education, media and our relationship to war draws out important debates on the public’s need for information, and the consequence of getting that equation wrong.

Time and technology play a role, of course. Towards the end of piece, the author discusses how the gatekeepers of yesteryear are not as capable of keeping an image (jarring or not) from the wider public. But the question of censorship —from the battlefield to the photo desk— should not be shirked too quickly. Today, censorship has a younger but worrying sibling —content overload. Because of the wealth of visual content, images that ought to matter might be missed entirely if not highlighted by major outlets. This suggests, at its core, the so called “mainstream media” retains responsibility to prioritize in service of truth, to inform in proportion to importance, and —in the case of war photography— to render the full color and cost of conflict.

Our current media landscape (that sleepless circle of revolving “information”) creates space for pundits to fire away with half truths and misconceptions. “Analysis”, broadly defined, has become so varied as to render meaningful debate nearly impossible. But this is where photographs, and the intrinsic value of what I’ll call “the moment presented”, can break the cycle.

This doesn’t mean that photographs cannot be wielded in service of specific interests —even the photographer, in selecting one of endless scenes around him/her, has edited the world of experience. But photographs provide the basic foundation upon which debate (and engaged conversation) might occur.¹

War, especially today, is murky enough. But how we come to see it —to experience it— ought to be informed by actual events, made public and debated. Jarecke knows this better than most. In The Atlantic piece, his 1991 interview with American Photo provides the final quote: “If we’re big enough to fight a war, we should be big enough to look at it.”

 


 

¹For example: Bag News Notes, run by Michael Shaw, tackles the “visual politics” of photographs, providing both a critical reading of context, which frames discussion of the image’s content.

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