BOOK REVIEW / The war to end war: 'Distant Voices' - John Pilger: Vintage, 6.99

Click to follow
Investigative journalism requires us to have faith in the writer's integrity. John Pilger's detractors attack his credibility, hoping to undermine him; but Pilger has said: 'If you're an investigative journalist you should almost be able to measure the success and quality of your work by the enemies you have.'

His targets are generally political, and by no means unarmed. When Pilger and others exposed covert SAS training of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge, the Foreign Office fought back. They prepared a 'Pilger package' of 10 'pro' and 10 'anti' press articles, and distributed it to some of those who wrote to the government about his allegations. A few of the pieces were highly derogatory. The government's denial of SAS activities in Cambodia came with it.

Several months later, the Government admitted that the SAS training had occurred, and Pilger was vindicated. However, it denied that training was still taking place. Once again, Pilger set about proving otherwise. In his new book, Pilger's intelligence source says that covert SAS training, despite government denials, is 'the principal direct Western military involvement in Indo-China'.

Distant Voices is similar in form to his 1988 book, Heroes; a series of long articles on Britain, the US and the Gulf war, Cambodia, the media, Palestinian life, a few personal reflections, and tributes to Noam Chomsky and others. Several pieces expand and develop the Heroes work in the light of later research. As ever, the research is painstaking. There are 600 references to source.

There is also a sense of immediacy in Pilger's writing. His insights into people's lives are finely written and compassionate. 'He bears the familiar scars of homelessness; such as a furtiveness that gives the impression of a person being followed; a sporadic, shallow joviality that fails to mask his anxiety; and a deferential way that does not necessarily reflect his true self.'

Such glimpses of individual circumstance draw us into other people's worlds. Pilger invites the reader to transcend the gulf of distance and nationality that separates us from the effects of our government's policies at home and throughout the world. Thus he draws a link between SAS training of the Khmer Rouge and Cambodian villagers being killed or maimed by mines planted in their rice fields. The British government is directly implicated.

Why did it take nearly 10 years for this to come to light? The media's complicity in perpetuating official myths is a major theme of Distant Voices. 'In a genuinely free society there needs to be unrestricted debate, drawing on a diversity of sources that reflect the complexity of a society that is not one nation.'

In Distant Voices Pilger gives an alternative version of the run-up to the Gulf war. 'Saddam Hussein was deliberately squeezed or 'entrapped' into invading Kuwait.' He doesn't deny Saddam's aggressive tendencies, but thinks that since the West helped him develop his military power and nuclear potential, we should not have been so hasty in killing up to 250,000 of their people.

A week before the invasion, the US ambassador to Iraq told Saddam that the US would have 'no opinion on your border conflict with Kuwait'. Pilger writes: 'Four days before the invasion, according to the Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the CIA predicted that the invasion would happen when it did . . . Two days before the invasion of Kuwait, Assistant Secretary of State John Kelly told a Congressional hearing that the United States was not committed to defend Kuwait.' Are these the words of a government trying to talk Saddam out of invasion?

Pilger also criticises the media celebration of the precise Tomahawk cruise missile. The weapon's accuracy was lauded, but: 'We were not told that the Tomahawk delivers three 'packages' of 'grenade sub-munitions' that spray tens of thousands of small pieces of shrapnel aimed at 'soft targets': that is, people.'

Stringent critiques abound, but Pilger refuses to prescribe simple solutions. Aiming to heighten awareness, what he encourages above all is enlightened active participation. He is the enemy of consensus, but his opposition is validated by the numerous awards his journalism has received around the world. Distant Voices provides a moral interpretation of world affairs in a cynical age.