A Hundred And One Days – H3a Reading Group Review, 7 March 2012

Hundred And One Days
By Åsne Seierstad

Herodotus “the world’s first reporter”
Åsne Seierstad

Iraq can only be ruled by force,” a senior Ba’ath official told me in 1999. “Mesopotamia is not a civilised state,” Bell wrote to her father on December 18 1920.

Published in 2003,  A Hundred and One Days describes Åsne Seierstad’s stay in Baghdad during the build up to and capture of the city by the US forces in the early part of the year.

The book is a graphic account not only of a city and its people under extraordinary threat; it is also a vivid representation of life as a modern war correspondent.

The book triggered a diverse discussion for the group. As well as considering the work as a piece of literature, we also considered the role of contemporary war correspondents. We debated what purposes they served and how they reconciled their duty to report the truth whilst facing real life-threatening hazards and working under the equally threatening watch of the officially appointed minders. We also considered the pressures of working in a world that demands instant news, 24 hours a day.

A Hundred and One Days as a book

Overall the group members were glad to have read the book although no one claimed to enjoy it. We all felt “enjoy” would not be the most appropriate word given the detailed descriptions of the carnage wreaked by both sides in the course of the capture of Baghdad.

One member expressed the generally felt view that our reaction to the book was coloured by our attitudes to the war itself. There was a widespread view that we had found ourselves at war in Iraq before all the alternatives had been truly exhausted. Another recalled her euphoria at Tony Blair’s election victory in 1997, and how devastated she felt when he lead us into that war in the face of widespread popular opposition.

For some, the style of the book grated a little, one person noting that it was very episodic, like cribs from a journalist’s notebook. There were times, she felt, when the insights were thought-provoking – “In Iraq we are ready for war, like you are ready for winter” – but for the most part it lacked reflection on the situation. Generally personalities were painted with a broad brush stroke, with little development. However, others felt the book came alive when she got very close the fighting and to the immediate aftermaths of artillery attacks.

Several of us found her idiosyncratic punctuation a bit of a trial. In particular, her failure to give hardly any clue, with italics or with quotation marks, when she was quoting direct speech, caused us to trip up on many occasions.

One member found the first 30% of the book slow going, feeling it focussed too much on how she felt, and her complaining that people wouldn’t talk to her. Even when she did infrequently find people to talk to her, he felt her questions were sometimes a little fatuous. However, he agreed the pace picked up as the regime’s grip on power, and in particularly the power to control the news reporting, diminished.

We all felt her writing was at its best when she gets caught up in the action, especially in her visits to hospitals, and markets that had been struck by artillery fire, friendly or otherwise. It was at these points when she is very effective in recounting all the angst of the situation.

The Role of the Contemporary War Correspondent

The first point we recognised was the tremendous courage, tenacity and resourcefulness of Åsne Seierstad and war correspondents in general when they report on modern warfare. The book brought home to us all the reality behind the images we have grown used to seeing nightly on our television screens. What we seldom see on our screens is the unmentionable fear that Seierstad herself (and presumably others) experience on a daily basis as they go in search of stories.

Seierstad asserts in the Preface that “things happen all the time but the viewer only sees the outcome;” the skill of the successful journalist is knowing how to be at the right place at the right time, with the (not inconsiderable) technical resources to report on those “things happening”.

The group focussed at length on the question of why we have war correspondents, what their role is and who they serve.

The author gives different versions of the journalist’s role at different times. In the preface, she says:

My remit as a journalist in the chaos of war was not to judge, predict or analyse. It was to look, ask and report.

But just a few pages later she tells us:

I am here to find dissidents, a secret uprising, gagged intellectuals, Saddam’s opponents. I am here to point out human rights violations, expose oppression.

Far from avoiding the roles though, today’s correspondents (Åsne included) are daily called upon to judge, predict or analyse at least as much as they look, ask and report. News coverage often takes the form of waiting for information, just as much as the reporters on the ground wait for something to happen.

How often we witness the anchor person in the studio padding out a story – cutting back and forth between reporters or expert commentators, teasing out nuggets of background information, commentary, speculation and even the journalist’s own “take” on events – whilst waiting, as it were, for the war to start, for the “breaking news” to break.

Comments such as “We are expecting the President to give a press conference at any minute, John, but in the meantime, what do you think he is likely to say?” are the nightly stuff of contemporary news programmes.

As we progressed in the meeting, it became evident that the role of the modern war correspondent is far more paradoxical than we first imagined.

With modern technology they have the ability to report on events in real time, from anywhere in the world. However, they have to do so within boundaries set by all sides in the conflict:

  • nominally they are required to be impartial and even handed, but covertly to uphold the values of the “folk back home”;
  • they are constrained by official minders not to be too critical of the enemy;
  • they are constrained by their employers at home not to make it too gruesome;
  • they are supposed to be ever ready with an explanation, an opinion, a spot of analysis;
  • some of us observed that correspondents were also constrained by their ability to speak Arabic or other local languages and also their awareness of local religious and cultural mores[1].

In today’s digitally intertwined world there is an apparently limitless supply of information, so much so that the possibility of information overload is an ever present risk. One person observed that she felt she had lived through every single conflict herself.

This raised the questions for us of why we want all this, why do we have war correspondents, what is their purpose:

  • Is it to somehow legitimise the actions of the “goodies” whoever they are?
  • Is it to criticise the action of the “baddies” (likewise, whoever they are?)
  • Is it to be our “expert” on the ground, asking the questions we want answered from the generals and politicians?
  • Is it to make us observers feel part of the struggle?
  • Is it to help change something by galvanising one side to take action against the other side?
  • Is it perhaps to persuade one set of individuals to change their ways, so they conform more closely to a set of ideals that another set of individuals deems to be somehow “right” or “better” – such as the imposition of democracy perhaps?
  • Is their role, at least in part, to be used by the enemy in an attempt to get across their side of the argument to the audience at home?
  • Or is it simply to fill news slots with stuff that is in some way seemingly timely but mostly “entertaining”?

One member quoted a passage from Neil Postman’s book “Amusing Ourselves to Death,”

Entertainment is the supra ideology of all discourse on television. No matter what is depicted. . . the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure. That is why even on news shows which provide us daily with fragments of tragedy and barbarism, we are urged by the news casters to “join them tomorrow”. What for? One would think that several minutes of murder and mayhem would suffice as material for a month of sleepless nights. We accept their invitation because we know that the “news” is not to be taken seriously, that it is all in fun, so to say.

This was written back in 1985, before Facebook, Twitter, internet in every home and a television in every room! How much more do we accept being entertained to death today?

The Pressure of 24 hour News

One of the features of modern war reporting – which was clearly brought out in the book – is the voracious 24 hour media monster’s ceaseless demand to be fed.

Come what may, the pressure is on to come up with a story, often in the face of bullets and bombs, frequently despite the strictures placed upon them by the ever present “minders”, and always within a very tight time frame.

Sometimes the stories are all too plentiful; many are so graphic or so heart- rending and poignant as to render any words of the correspondent superfluous or even trite. Tellingly, one member said that one of his preferred styles of news coverage is the “No Comment” element of Euro News where the pictures are allowed to “speak” for themselves.

Another member pointed out how the ability to report instantly on events anywhere in the world shapes contemporary news programmes. Only 100 or 150 years ago the absence of speedy communications media meant that wars could be fought and won or loss before the civilian population “back home” knew that the war had even started.

Now, with the odd notable exception, news blackouts of conflict are rare, and senior military and civilian officials are generally complicit in so-called news management, in order to show their deeds in the best possible light, including playing down their own casualties, explaining “friendly fire” incidents and exaggerating enemy losses [2] These days, they even “embed” correspondents alongside their troops, partly to act as first hand witnesses and also to be on hand to cross examine the generals during the course of hostilities.

Easily within the life time of most group members, the interruption of scheduled programmes used to be a rare event, reserved generally for the death of the head of state or the outbreak of war. Now even routine events cannot wait until the next scheduled news bulletin; in its rush to be first with the news, the BBC for example will regularly curtail a scheduled programme to bring some “breaking news”[3].

War and the Truth

In this context the group considered the degree to which news could be trusted any more. With ever greater and deeper coverage and the demands for 24 hour news, we felt less sure about how much we could trust the news we were hearing.

In Asne Seierstad’s book, as one member observed, the Ministry of Information in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was straight out of George Orwell’s novel 1984, in the way it was able to delude itself into believing its own propaganda.

Regardless of whether it was first uttered by Dr Samuel Johnston in 1758, Senator Hiram Warren Johnson in 1917, or by Arthur Ponsonby’s In 1928, we all felt that the book affirmed for us the oft-quoted aphorism that “the first casualty when war comes is truth”.

Today, the demands by the media for ever more news complement the requirements of governments and military commanders to present their efforts in the best possible light; add into the mix the need for the on-the-spot reporter to give a two minute “expert” analysis of rapidly changing events whilst bullets fly all around, and the chance that the resulting news reflects any kind of objective truth begins to look rather slim.

At the level of our own experience, those of us who have been involved in a news event noted how often what appears on the screen or on the page bears scant resemblance to what actually happened before our eyes. How much more is the truth likely to become the first casualty in a war zone?

However, as two members mentioned, there is nothing new about truth being a casualty of war. Often it has been not so much overt propaganda as the withholding of information for tactical advantage.

For example, a controversy still surrounds the devastating bombing of Coventry in World War II when some people believe that Churchill knew the raid was going to happen, because he had access to intelligence gleaned from the Enigma code breaking successes at Bletchley Park, but allowed Coventry to be sacrificed rather than compromise the source of the information.

Another example was the belief that Churchill knew, from the same source, that the Japanese were about to attack Pearl Harbour but withheld the information so as not to compromise the source and, some would add, to ensure that America entered the war.

We concluded that war by its nature has always been messy but these days news, riddled through with comment and “spin”, becomes ever less trustworthy. It is indeed a paradox that, despite the most advanced means of communication the world has ever known, news as a representation of the truth seems ever further from our grasp.

Contemporary journalism and the truth

The book acted as a catalyst for us to discuss journalism in general and the degree to which we can rely on what we read in our newspapers or see on our television screens. As a group we recognised that news coverage of any sort is frequently distorted by the prism of editorial bias; the personal opinions of programme makers and newspaper owners often slant stories in favour of one view or against a contrary view. Most topical at the moment are the controversies over Rupert Murdoch’s News International organisation and the scandals which are currently being investigated in the UK.

One member suggested that Fox News doesn’t even seem to bother with the facts, simply making things up as they go. Someone he knew was employed by Fox News as a “fact checker” – but any corrections that the fact checker introduced were simply ignored in the final version if they did not fit the story the channel wanted to tell.

Contemporary Journalism and Self-Censorship

Self-censorship happens for many reasons and this is especially true in a war context.

As the author notes, often the journalists cannot report what they want to report because “a visa is too precious to sacrifice for the sake of one crushing report”. In other words war correspondents are obliged to tell less than a full version of the truth, to self-censor, to preserve their ability to continue reporting. It is interesting in recent events in the Middle East “Arab Spring” that repressive regimes have tried initially to keep foreign journalists out of the conflict areas and then, as in the current book, required reporting to be controlled by minders.

In one of the few lighter moments in the book, the author touches on the absurdity of the relationship between her and her first minder Takhlef:

What sort of a game is this? How much longer must I praise Saddam’s shining hair? How often will Takhlef boast about the victories of the revolution……… He knows he is lying, he knows I know he is lying; he knows I am lying, he knows that I know that he knows I am lying.

Another form of self-censorship is evident in the way images and events witnessed by war correspondents are “sanitised” because someone somewhere deems the images seen by the reporter to be too gruesome.

We assume most reporters, on a human level, do not want to witness people being blown up, or tortured, or physically and mentally abused, but as searchers for truth, these are the very things they are obliged to seek out and witness.

One telling passage from the book, where the author is reporting on the missile that hit the market at Al Nassar and what she saw at the mortuary:

This is what the reader and the television viewer do not see, nor the politicians and the generals. It is too gruesome to publish. But those who are in the morgue that evening will carry the pictures with them forever.

As the author says on another occasion, after a particularly emotional visit to a hospital:

A dead child’s face is too strong an image for the international press. But this is what war is about – people dying.

The Effects of Repression and War on Civilians

We were interested to read street level accounts of how repressive regimes work and how the people themselves cooperate willingly in self-imposed censorship for fear of being exposed and risking punishment or even death at the hand of relatives and neighbours, even one’s own children One member recalled the woman who takes her husband’s place at work. When she persistently asks where her husband is, she is told if she asks again her brothers and sons will be arrested.

However someone else pointed out that social media such as Facebook and You Tube and the wide availability of mobile phones with cameras provide routes which bypass the authorities to reach the wider world.

Of course not everyone the author met had the same view of the invasion. In the book it became evident that one’s position in society governed one’s reaction to the regime. Asne’s translator/minder Aliya is a case in point. Most of us had some sympathy with her. Middle class, educated, on the ‘right’ side of the religious divide, she believed whole heartedly in Saddam Hussein almost to the end, when a sliver of doubt slips into her mind. Even when she was faced with the evidence, she reads the 99 names of Allah[4] inscribed on ceiling of presidential palace, as a way of getting away from the situation she hates.

Sanctions affect ordinary people in paradoxical ways. Generally, the more sanctions bite, the more the people depend on the tyrants in power.

One particularly striking passage for some of us was when Asne was in a café just before the invasion and she reflected on how ordinary people in our own countries would feel if all these journalist suddenly turned up in time for an imminent invasion, simply to report on the almost certain defeat of the country.

We could all answer that question easily – we wouldn’t like it one bit. But would the price be worth paying if it meant the removal of a tyrant and freedom for an oppressed people? We could probably answer that too.

The real tragedy in this case seems to be that there was no good workable plan for what happened after the statue of Saddam Hussein was pulled down.  Even today, 10 years on, it would be a brave person who could state categorically that the price was worth paying. We wonder what Seierstad would say.

[1] In fairness, some are fluent in middle eastern languages, for example, on BBC Frank Gardner, Lyce Doucet

[2] One member cited the Vietnam War, where this “black“propaganda regularly occurred.

[3] A recent example was the interruption of a documentary programme on Ghandi, just three minutes before the end, to cut to Vladimir Putin claiming his widely anticipated election victory.

[4] A long time ago in Iran I was told how children can remind themselves that Allah has 99 names. They cup their hands in front of them in the traditional Muslim gesture of prayer. If they look at their left hand they will find ΛΙ “written” on their palm and on their right hand they will find ΙΛ. If my computer could write proper Arabic script, it would be clearer that these represent 81 and 18 respectively, which total 99.

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>