In November and December 2008, my friend Graham Lavery and I went to Afghanistan because we wanted to see the war there for ourselves. Graham is Canadian and I’m American. To different extents, we’re both professional writers and professional helicopter pilots.
For half of our three-week visit, we were embedded with United States Army helicopter medevac units at Bagram and Jalalabad air fields, experiences that we wrote about for the helicopter magazine that I now edit. Covering helicopter operations in Afghanistan was not the primary goal of our trip, but it was a surprisingly good means to an end — we were considerably more mobile than the average embedded reporter, and the sheer number of forward operating bases and combat outposts we visited gave us a good, wide-ranging perspective on Western military engagement in that country.
Graham and I financed the trip ourselves, and while we weren’t exactly on a shoestring budget, we weren’t on a particularly generous one, either. Neither of us had any prior experience reporting from combat zones; we figured it out as we went along. The trip was brilliant. It afforded us direct insight into a conflict that — at least in my own case — seven years of mainstream news reports had rendered vague and confusing.
It also afforded me more insight into the national character and development challenges of Afghanistan than I had managed to get from seven years of mainstream reporting. One of the things that struck me most about the war was the enormity of the gulf between Afghan civilians and the majority of Westerners operating in the country — whether as soldiers, diplomats, aid workers or, for that matter, reporters.
At remote outposts, Graham and I encountered the soldiers who were doing the hands-on business of war, and we did see one or two examples of Western initiatives that had succeeded in fostering meaningful engagement with the Afghan population. Overwhelmingly, however, the division between Westerners and Afghans was absolute. For example, at the time of our visit, the military base at Bagram had a population of about 18,000 people (about a third of whom were contractors). Few of Bagram’s “permanent” residents had ventured outside of its gates. Graham and I literally saw more of Afghanistan in three weeks than many of these soldiers had in 12-month deployments. We saw this pattern repeated on the civilian side of things in Kabul, among governmental and non-governmental aid organisations.
I returned from Afghanistan convinced that this tremendous practical disconnect between Westerners and Afghans — a division that was feeding a vicious cycle of mutual fear and hostility — was sufficient to prevent the U.S. from ever achieving its stated policy aims in the country. From a Western perspective, it may appear unforgivably foolish to walk through a Kabul market without body armor. But it doesn’t take an exceptional act of reverse projection to see that, to an Afghan, a fully armed Westerner walking among unarmed women and children is always going to be an object of contempt.
The risks of any war zone are real and constant — there’s no way around it. Yet even in places like Afghanistan, I venture to suggest that the knee-jerk “First World” suspicion of “Third World” civilians is almost always disproportionate to the actual threat. Why this discrepancy? A portion of the blame accrues unavoidably to the media, extending even to helicopter magazines.
I recently read a column by another helicopter journalist (in, it should be admitted, a competing magazine). In approximately 900 words titled “The Taxi Ride of My Life,” this reporter described the harrowing process of taking a taxicab in Kabul — from one side of the airport to the other. I quote: “Let me understand you correctly. I have got to walk out of this civilian airport and hail a taxi to get to your military side of the airport. Me, a tall British guy loaded down with all of the trappings a journalist usually packs for this venture — computer, camera, small video camera, background notes — all with the added burden of a body armor and helmet as well as my personal clothes, in one of the most dangerous countries on earth, where kidnappings are rife and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are killing people every few days.”
Indeed. After grabbing “the nearest, least shifty looking Afghan airport security guard in view,” and trying to “maintain some authority” over his taxi driver, the author finally made it around the perimeter of the airport to the “U.S. Military Embed Team who was safe and snug on the other side of the airfield.”
I was reminded of my own (as a then a 28-year old female wearing an unaccustomed head scarf and a backpack) arrival at Kabul International Airport. As I later described in a story in my hometown newspaper: “It was not an auspicious arrival. Our driver was nowhere to be found and we spent an hour waiting for him in the car park, watching one Western contractor after another being ushered past us into their designated armored vehicles. But the Afghan taxi drivers in the car lot were entirely friendly, assisting us with cell phone calls and finally giving us a lift to the far parking lot where our driver had, in fact, been waiting for 30 minutes.” The subsequent hour-long drive to Bagram was a fascinating introduction to the country, and an opportunity to pick the brain of our driver: “Graham asked our cab driver if the Taliban was popular in this area. ‘Oh yes,’ he answered matter-of-factly.”
It is in the financial interest of news organisations to hype the intrepidness of their reporters, whether that organisation is a helicopter magazine or CNN. A similar logic applies to contractors and NGOs operating in developing countries. Unfortunately, the self-aggrandising quality of most foreign reporting encourages “First World” citizens to view “Third World” ones as ‘shifty’ — as objects of pity, contempt or fear, rather than as human beings. As the experience of our British journalist indicates, this influences not only the perceptions of the viewers at home, but the perceptions and actions of people in the field. The author of “The Taxi Ride of My Life” returned from Afghanistan fully convinced that a taxi ride to Bagram “would have been foolish in the extreme.” His experiences were limited accordingly. This overriding emphasis on “security” is not limited to combat zones. Graham and I witnessed the same patterns a year later while reporting from Haiti in the aftermath of that country’s devastating earthquake.
As someone with extensive tactical firearms training, I don’t consider myself particularly naïve about the existence of people who would do me harm. But I also believe in a realistic appraisal of threats. Graham put it best when he observed, “we don’t teach street smarts, we teach fear.” As citizens of “First World” nations, we’re not going to make progress in addressing development issues without street smarts, empathy and a bit of courage.