Harvill Secker £14.99 (280pp) £13.49 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 0870 079 8897
The Secret Life of War, By Peter Beaumont
Friday 05 June 2009
There are journalists who run towards the sound of gunfire when all around them people are fleeing in the opposite direction. Peter Beaumont did so for many years, and his courage and curiosity gave us a rich seam of reports - evocative, thoughtful and often very moving.
Now Beaumont is no longer sure he wants to continue bearing the cost that this life brings himself and those close to him. It is not, he points out, just the cancelled holidays and missed birthdays, and the inevitable strain on relationships. There is also the ever-rising feeling of emotional numbness which comes from chronicling things best left unseen.
The Secret Life of War, Beaumont's attempt to chart this difficult journey of self-awareness, takes us through his coverage of conflict for over two decades in the Balkans and the Middle East, Afghanistan and Iraq. As a young reporter, he approached his first war by watching films and documentaries, and imbibing other people's reportage. In the middle of the real thing he soon discovered that he had to acquire his own ritual for survival, the means of coping with the bombs, bullets and bodies.
There was, he found, an intrinsic excitement in being a spectator to history being made. There was an adrenalin rush with facing danger; observing horror had its own fascination. But all the time, there was also the seeping corrosion - "The damage I have seen accumulates like drifting snow, piling deeper and deeper still. Cold and numbing".
Jon Swain, another fine writer who has seen his share of conflicts, says this book will be very recognisable to journalists who have traversed the same landscape. That is true, not least because Beaumont has the honesty to address the issue of post-traumatic stress and counselling: the kind of thing from which most war correspondents shy away. This is partly because it is deemed safer to push away such unpleasant memories; partly an intrinsic sense of machismo, and partly apprehension that admission of such frailties risks the loss of assignments covering conflicts in the future.
But Beaumont reaches beyond his peers to a wider readership. This is despite his tendency, at times, to drift into abstractions: theorising which does not always stand up to scrutiny. He more than makes up for this, however, with his calmness, frankness, self-deprecation and sense of wonder in examining the raw emotions which fuel conflicts.
Beaumont approaches the job of covering wars in as objective a way as possible. He embeds with the military because there is often no other way of getting to shifting frontlines in Iraq and Afghanistan, and also because he rightly tries to understand what drives the soldier to fight in a distant country in the name of the "war on terror". But he also attempts to get to the other side, the "insurgents" against the West; to understand the mentality of jihad. Most of all, he talks to ordinary people caught up in conflict about their lives, losses and fading hopes clung on to at a time of strife.
One of Beaumont's moments of epiphany was a night in the Hamra Hotel in Baghdad, used by journalists who chose not to stay in the fortified, American-run "Green Zone". Sleepless, he gets a rifle belonging to one of his bodyguards, sits with is cradled on his lap, and tries to reconcile himself to the fact that he may have to use a gun himself if the insurgents came. Beaumont was covering some other war when the attack on the Hamra did come. It was carried out by suicide bombers who blew up the building used by most British hacks.
Stumbling out of the wreckage, I ran into Rick, a British security guard who was staying in the next room. As we laughed out of sheer funk and relief at being alive, I pointed to the Kalashnikov he was carrying and said "Well, that wasn't much use was it?" Rick was adamant "It would have been if they had followed up by trying to storm the place". There followed, amid the smoke and rubble, a polite debate on the ethics of journalists having armed guards and carrying guns when gunfire broke out all around.
Beaumont would have enjoyed the surreal nature of the discussion. These are not issues he will be facing in the future. "I know I should bring an end to my journeys through the realm of war, give up my passport for the country of broken shapes". But for how long? At one point in his inner turmoil, Beaumont could not face going to the airport. But since writing the book he has been to Sarajevo and covered the aftermath of the Israeli assault on Gaza, where he plans to return. The sound of gunfire may be distant, but the lure is still there.
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