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War is Not Good for the Environment. Our Cultural Heritage, or Any Sentient Being


By the time active military engagement ended, the United States dropped three times as many tons of bombs on North Vietnam, a country the size of Illinois, as were dropped by the Allies in all of the Second World War...Three million Americans served in Vietnam: 58,000 died there. The United States got nothing for it.   


-Louis Menad, "The Free World"


I was reading Menand's chapter on Vietnam in The Free World the very week that most of the American troops in Afghanistan came home. The bases that fed and employed the local populations, bases as large as cities, were abandoned in a middle-of-the-night clandestine operation to prevent Taliban attacks during retreat.


The United States got nothing for that 20-year war either. Osama was bivouacked in Pakistan so why, exactly, did we go in?


The women of Afghanistan benefited greatly from the American occupation, however. A short-lived gift. What will happen to them now?


I've known a few war reporters, and to a person they are addicted to the adrenalin rush of war. They then feel remorse, and often cannot wind down, sleep or eat for months, or years. Like soldiers and humanitarian relief workers, reporters often suffer from PTSD. They witness cruelty, barbarism, murder, famine, loss. Sometimes, like some humanitarian workers, soldiers and reporters disappear from civilian life entirely, re-enlist ad infinitum, volunteer to cover stories ad infinitum, and stay in the field for the rest of their lives following the footprints of war across the continents. There are plenty to keep them busy.


And then there are the soldiers who become humanitarian workers—swords into ploughshares. I am always honored to meet them. This week I received an email from Robert Macpherson's publicist asking if I'd blurb his debut book, Stewards of Humanity; Lighting the Darkness in Humanitarian Crisis.  Macpherson is a former infantry officer in the U.S. Marines with service in Vietnam, Iraq, and Somalia. After retiring as a Colonel, he enjoyed a second career with the humanitarian aid agency, CARE. He lives in Charlotte, NC with his wife, Veronica and service dog, Blue.


A service dog. That says a lot, enough for me to consider saying yes to the publicist, that I'm happy to read the book and write a blurb. The only caveat is the prose: it has to be strong. I wasn't disappointed. Here's an excerpt, by permission:


Upon leaving the clinic, I thought about how sheltered I had been. Although I experienced war and conflict, I traveled within a bubble. If I were injured, the Marine Corps would find and rescue me. When I went to a rest area away from combat, there were cans of Coca-Cola and other staples of American life. Wherever we were assigned, we brought our culture, language, and as much of our lifestyle with us as logistically possible. In Somalia, though, I was pushed outside my psychological comfort zone. Combat was horrendous, but I was trained for it. This was the first time I directly encountered the long-term results of armed conflict on the innocent.


Some statistics: According to Unicef and Save the Children , 426 million children are living in conflict zones, 1/5th of the world's children. 27 million children will be born into conflict zones this year.



It's hard these days to imagine a planet without war, or the environmental and human degradation that war amplifies, or causes. Armed conflict impacts all of us, even if we live protected lives far away from the battlefield.  What can we do here, from the relative safety of our homes? At the very least, we can monitor the foreign policy initiatives and arms sales of our government. After all, we are the only nation on earth that unleashed an atomic weapon to "end" a war.

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Hemingway's Drafts

“Wearing down seven #2 pencils is a good day’s work.”
--Hemingway in a Paris Review interview with George Plimpton, Spring 1958

And this was the first of several surprises in the Morgan Library’s exhibition of Hemingway’s papers between the wars: he wrote drafts of his fiction in pencil. And why did he use pencil instead of pen or a typewriter? So the text would feel “malleable and fluid” and could be improved. The penciled draft went to a typist and then was scratched over again—in pencil—with deletions, additions and word changes, and then went to the typist again. The last chapter of “A Farewell to Arms” was written 39 times. And only then did Hemingway contemplate a title. He made long lists, ideas from poetry, the Bible, Shakespeare.

This is the exact opposite of my process so I found it interesting. I have long lists of titles in my journals some of which get made into stories or nonfiction essays, most of which do not. The title becomes the armature, or is the armature, and I don’t begin until I have it solidly in my mind. The fluidity for me comes with revision of the text; I rarely change the title although sometimes an editor will.

Hemingway worked well with his editors though, like all of us, he was resistant to certain changes. But in the end he studied the suggestions and revised his work. He changed plot outlines, developed new characters, read voraciously as he was writing, kept notes.

“The Sun Also Rises” filled seven small notebooks. There is plenty of space between the lines and the handwriting is eminently legible. Hemingway crossed out, changed words, shifted phrases, but he rarely re-structured. I think this was because he was already a practiced writer before he attempted fiction.He had deadline experience as a reporter, a wonderful discipline for any writer—fiction or nonfiction. Copy had to be quick, clean and precise. His first journalism job was with the Kansas City Star, then the Toronto Star and, finally, with Collier’s during World War II. Last year, I downloaded his dispatches from the Toronto Star. They are wonderful to read—dynamic and prescient.

I don’t think it matters if we use pencil, pen, a computer or our smart phones—we all find our own way—so long as we are disciplined in our writing lives. Until he became debilitated by alcohol, Hemingway was a disciplined writer, as was his friend and rival, Fitzgerald. They read each other’s work and critiqued it. Casualties of war, suffering from undiagnosed “shell shock,” that we now label PTSD, both men self-medicated and eventually blew themselves away, Hemingway with a shotgun, Fitzgerald with booze which he gave up—too late.

The exhibition of Hemingway's innovative drafts and correspondence will be at The Morgan until January 31st.

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I first mentioned Jon Lee Anderson last February in a blog about Anthony Shadid, the New York Times reporter who died on his way out of Syria. Both were war reporters. Jon Lee Anderson is now in Aleppo reporting for The New Yorker and, though experienced, I hope he finds his way out of that chaotic, dangerous war zone soon. That said, I’m looking forward to his next dispatch, an apt word to use for a war reporter’s articles. Under siege, protected as much as possible by flak jackets and the soldiers they are traveling with, they find a safe house from which to send their stories to waiting editors via satellite. These stories are not usually written in a quiet study or even a newsroom; they are composed in the field in what is left of human habitation. A far cry from the still sedate 1930’s when wealthy travelers visited a peaceful Aleppo and opened their neatly printed tourist guides issued by “Northern Syria and the Municipality of Aleppo, the “ancient and populous capital of Northern Syria.” Two of these guides are currently on view at the Museum of Art and Design in New York City, quaint collectibles saved by tobacco heiress, Doris Duke. Duke was enamored of the Islamic world which she visited in 1935 on a honeymoon with her first husband. When she returned, she built a Shangri La in Hawaii with artifacts from Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Egypt and Syria. A conservationist and a philanthropist, I am sure she would have been horrified to learn about the destruction of Aleppo, its antiquities and inhabitants. The desecration of human history in museums and archives is a byproduct of these terrible wars.  Read More 
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War Reporters

This blog post is dedicated to the memory of Anthony Shadid who died from an asthma attack while he was reporting from Syria with NY Times photographer Taylor Hicks. Most reporters who enter a war zone clandestinely travel with security personnel one of whom is usually a medic. Shadid and Hicks, probably for logistical reasons, decided to travel solo, relying only on one another. Hicks did the best he could to revive Shadid who collapsed on their way out.

Lebanese-born, fluent in Arabic, and experienced in the field, Anthony Shadid had recently been in Libya where he had been taken hostage. After his release, he had returned to his new wife and baby in Lebanon before setting out again to cover the uprising in Syria.

I did not know Anthony Shadid personally though I have known other war reporters and photographers. I first began to meet them at press events in London and then at parties. The word bloviating comes to mind; most were cowboys. So dehumanized by their work, I rarely heard a kind word spoken about the refugees they were interviewing or the horrors of war. If they’d been shot, so much the better for the tale, always a great adventure, adrenalin pumping. But when women entered the news rooms in the 1980’s, the culture of reporting changed, and although women war reporters can be as macho as any of their male colleagues, some seemed interested in more human stories and bravely humanized their reporting. Of course, this shift cannot only be attributed to women, but I think in large measure their presence began a larger cultural shift in the news rooms. Strange that Shadid’s writing is described as lyrical and personal— stereotypical female qualities—when it is simply human.

And there have been so many wars, so much to write about, so many stories since my years in London as a young reporter. When I began my book, “Another Day in Paradise; International Humanitarian Workers Tell Their Stories,” in 2000 one of my greatest champions was Scott Anderson who covers wars for the New York Times Magazine. When he is not in harm’s way, he returns to the city and to his home upstate where he spends his days or weeks between assignments writing fiction and chopping wood. Like Anthony Shadid, his writing is driven by his feelings for the people he encounters, how they survive, or don’t. How they endure, or don’t. And like most good reporters, he does his homework. How does the history and politics of the region become a labyrinth of fate, impossible to escape? Scott’s brother, Jon Lee Anderson, reports for The New Yorker out of the UK. He had met Patrick Dillon, one of the contributors to “Another Day in Paradise,” in Baghdad just before the American invasion and, when Patrick went missing, he contacted me immediately and then kept track of him and tried to protect him. Recovered from a recent heart attack, Jon Lee Anderson is back at work.

And then there is James Nachtwey who calls his photography “witness photography.” In harms way most of his working life, he was shot in Iraq, but has not boasted about it. The home page of his website reads: “I have been witness, and these picture are my testimony. The events I have recorded should not be forgotten and must not be repeated." One phone call, and he agreed to give us a picture for the cover of “Another Day in Paradise.” The picture was taken in Afghanistan. The money he asked was nominal.

I thought of the war reporters I know when Anthony Shadid died. And I am honored to know them.
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