A Cassandra who had much to teach an aspiring war reporter

women at the front
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The Independent Online
Like a lot of first-time war reporters, I set off for my first battlefield in the disintegrating Yugoslavia with Martha Gellhorn in my mind and my luggage. My mother had given me a dog-eared copy of A Stricken Field as a kind of talisman because she associated her with survival.

When people have that quality, it is hard to believe that they are mortal. One of Martha's closest friends said of her yesterday, "I just never thought she'd die." This was her ninetieth year. But somehow, dying did not become her.

In The Face of War she wrote, "War is a malignant disease, an idiocy, a prison, and the pain it causes is beyond telling or imagining; but war was our condition and our history, the place we had to live in." It still is. She left us on the brink of yet another war and we can already write the script she knew so well from Spain, from the Second World War and Vietnam - cratered earth, suffering civilians, human shields, bombs, bombs and more bombs. For all the talk of surgical war and precision targeting - "official drivel", she called it - the results on the ground are remarkably unchanged.

It is the eternal, messy, uncontrollable quality of modern warfare that she evoked so well - that and the fact that whatever the rights and wrongs of a particular conflict, we fail our fellow men and women if we do not look upon the human horrors as well as the victories and defeats of conflict.

Her idea of the most immoral war was one in which the outside world does not get to know the fate of the casualties.

Her subject was not only war: it was the people of war, the civilians caught up in the strategy of generals. "I thought it would be fine," she wrote in 1939, "if the ones who order the bombing and do the bombing would walk on the ground some time and see what it is like". She had an amazing capacity to retain scores of images in her mind at once from a place she had been in for a short length of time and then to string them together in a coherent whole. Not since Joseph Conrad has anyone combined the skills of novelist and reporter so productively.

In later life, she remarked that she belonged to the "Federation of Cassandras", for she had come to have little faith in the ability of journalists to prevent evils. Still, she had "no time for that objectivity shit", and expected reporters to make moral judgements on what they saw. The responsibility to report remained, nonetheless, and she advised newcomers "to limit yourself to what you see and hear and not suppress and invent".

To that extent, she was a product of the photographic age (and she loved photography). For her, the reporter was the written equivalent of the camera's shutter. The immediacy is apparent from the first page of any report of hers you read; her technique of heaping images fast, on top of each other, looks easy - until you try it.

Sitting in the restaurant of the Esplanade hotel in Croatia in 1991 reading A Stricken Field, it was eery how the mood recalled the novel's powerful opening description of a hotel dining room on the eve of war in Europe 40 years before: the sickly excitement, the competition for sources, the hum of egos: the hyperactive, edgy atmosphere. The most fitting collective noun for a group of journalists holed up together is an insecurity.

As a role model for women journalists, she was unbeatable. When I first tried to freelance from Eastern Europe as a student, I found a world of journalistic bureaucracy, faithfully replicated not only by the Communist authorities but by the correspondents themselves. Old hands said that there were places you couldn't go and people you couldn't see because you didn't have this mysterious thing called "accreditation". I didn't really know what that was and was damn sure they wouldn't have given it to me anyway.

Then I read Gellhorn's description of setting sail in a hospital ship for D-Day after her husband Earnest Hemingway had swiped her accreditation: "A military policeman stopped me and asked me my business and I said I was just going to interview the nurses, the women's angle, for Colliers, the American magazine I was working for. Nobody gave a hoot about the women's angle. It served like a perfectly forged passport. As soon as I got aboard, I found a toilet and locked myself in."

From this I learnt that the single greatest advantage of being a woman in wartime is that you are less likely to be taken seriously, which means that you can get on with doing what you want without arousing more than passing curiosity. And any young reporter can learn from her that the worst thing you can do is get hung up on rules which have been expressly formulated to waste your time and divert you from what is really happening.

Gellhorn was always honest about the gaps in her knowledge - far more so, it seems to me, than a lot of women writers on war today who feel that in order to be taken seriously, they must appear to command the language of military expertise. "Battleships, destroyers, transports - I know nothing of ships," she writes in the middle of her brilliant description of the teeming Channel just before D-Day. She was also unafraid to admit to her fear, which takes real courage, particularly for women who suspect that they will be regarded as more fearful than their male colleagues.

I did not always agree with Gellhorn's political assessments. To the end, she refused to acknowledge the extent to which the carnage of Spain and the slaughter of the International Brigades was engineered by Stalin for his own purposes. I don't suppose I would have agreed with her about the justifications for war against Iraq either - there was an anti-American streak in her which was as unbending as it was instinctive. Of the unified Germany, she remained profoundly and, it seems to me, unfairly suspicious, trapped in the perceptions of 1945.

But it didn't matter. You could read and learn from her humanitarianism, be fired by the power of her writing and her haunting sense of place even if you didn't share her sturdily socialist view of the world.

Her last piece of "war reporting" was from Wales last year, where she returned to one of the scenes of the miners' strike and vividly described the aftermath of battle between Margaret Thatcher - "ruthless and clever, like a general" - and Arthur Scargill - "a fool". Once again, it was the poor bloody infantry who paid the price. We will always need voices to remind us of them. Hers was the brightest and the one we will miss most.

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