May 31, 2005

Bearing Witness

The Wars Against Saddam
John Simpson
(Pan Macmillan, 2003)

It struck me at a party this last weekend - whilst I explained that I was reading this book and why - that I have an odd non-fiction kink: I like reading journalism. Not just this book, which outlines events from the late 70s through the Iran/Iraq war and the two Gulf Wars, but a favourite read a few years back was All the Presidents' Men. Which has sprung back to mind due to Deep Throat finally revealing himself. You can also read Woodward and Bernstein's notes on Watergate online, which is a rather fabulous use of the net. And there's the strangeness that so far both my novels have contained real life journalists (Orwell in History 101, George Morrison in Warring States).

I can trace it back to reading a collection of Martha Gellhorn reports, The Face of War, which ranged from the Spanish Civil War to Nicaragura and El Salvador in the 80s. Whilst these writers all have distinctive voices - you can't mistake the careful procedure of W&B or Simpson's BBC house style - they also have a burning urge to tell you things, to draw events together and show truths and consequences. Still, it's a strange reading kink.

Simpson's book does occassionally repeat itself but primarily when his outrage at the number of independant journalists (as opposed to embedded ones) who were killed by friendly fire in the most recent war comes to the fore. He presents the case against Saddam with eye-witness accounts of the aftermath of the Halabja attack, or the brutal suppression of uprisings, but also outlines why the invasion was driven not merely by moral outrage by the West but by revenge and the new imperialism. There are unpleasant characters on all sides, and charming ones. This is the sort of journalism which wants to bear witness, so you're left with clearer concepts and understanding. And, as with all war journalism, a bile-inducing horror of war and its dehumanising effects.

I need to read more fiction and kick my non-fic jag...

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