“The challenge journalists face in trying to explain conflicts in a limited amount of time and space is immense. There is a tendency, seen for example in the mainstream coverage of the so-called war on terror, to reduce wars to the good versus evil narrative. The reality is usually far fuzzier. In the case of African conflicts, however, foreign journalists often appear to avoid the good versus evil structure. Unfamiliar with the wars themselves, there is a tendency to present them as an anarchical mess, unique to Africa, where people are just fighting for the sake of it in a pitiful display of madness.[i] Bernard-Henri Lévy, a well-travelled journalist and philosopher, falls straight into this trap. He concludes that the wars in Burundi, Sudan and (formerly) Angola are what he calls ‘the forgotten wars of the twenty-first century’:[ii]
“…for the first time in the modern era, and because the great narratives that provided meaning have fallen silent, great masses of men are caught in wars without aim, without clear ideological stakes, without memory, as the wars last for decades, perhaps without outcome – and where it is sometimes difficult indeed to tell, between protagonists who are drunk with equal parts of power, money and blood, where lies the true, the good, the least evil, the desirable.[iii]
“Lévy contrasts these ‘hidden’ wars with: ‘…serious wars, which have a meaning. There still exist in the Near East, for instance, wars where everyone can see that the fate of the world is at stake.’[iv] In dividing wars into two groups – those he sees as fuzzy, confusing, nonsensical ones versus the weighty, grown-up, meaningful ones – Lévy reveals his own ignorance. Why, for example, does he assume that ‘everyone’ views wars in the Near East in the same way? I doubt that the female peasant in eastern Congo thinks that the conflicts of the Great Lakes region in Central Africa are any less meaningful than the war between Israel and Palestine. From where she stands, the fate of her world is at stake in South Kivu, not the Near East.
“Lévy’s claim that it is harder to distinguish the good and evil protagonists in African wars (such as that in Sudan) than in other wars (such as Iraq’s) highlights his myopic vision of African conflicts. While he may find it hard to distinguish the good from the bad in Darfur, it is unlikely that the Sudanese have the same problem. Perhaps they think all the sides are evil, perhaps not, but doubtless they will be able to make their own value judgments about the warring parties and their leaders. In my experience covering the Angolan and Ivory Coast wars, it is the London-based desk editors who struggle to understand how complex and fuzzy most wars are, not the locals.
“Lévy goes to quite remarkable lengths to promote the European cliché of Africa. In Angola, he sees ‘leprous slums… ten-year-old prostitutes… packs of children with nothing to do… women with gargoyle heads, men who no longer have any face at all’.[v] A little later he pronounces: ‘It is definitely a war of the squalid, of the seamy, since I’ve seen only sleazy, squalid people since I’ve been here.’[vi] So where was he looking? There are also children who go to school and women who could be on the cat-walk. Did he not visit the young men who are given roses by the town’s girls, on the eve of a battle? Didn’t he see any of them? Or did he feel they would not conform to the stereotype he had expected? When Lévy goes to the central highland city of Huambo, he finds ‘everything in turmoil’.[vii] Everything? Surely not.
“When I visited Huambo (at around the same time he was there) there was a group of nuns who made and sold moisturizing cream- Sempre Jovem – and another group of women selling pots of delicious homemade strawberry jam. These are important truths of the war, just as important as the amputees and shelled buildings. But all Lévy can see ahead of him is ‘the same devastation, the same impression of a country in tatters – a dismembered, devitalized, lunar space, where everywhere you see traces of war but nowhere its logic, its meaning, or any sign of its end’.[viii] Perhaps he did not know enough to spot the signs, to understand the meanings and logic and, indeed, the sign of its end: after all, the Angolan civil war ended a couple of years after his visit.
“One of Lévy’s final points about Angola is what he calls ‘the paradox’ of the conflict: ‘They fight each other… wherever there’s nothing but poverty, desert, villages plundered over and over… But wherever there are riches… a non-war is imposed, a gentleman’s agreement…’[ix] As I read this, I find myself pondering the so-called war on terror, replete with its own gentleman’s agreements, and wonder why Lévy believes this to be so exclusively African.[x]
“Lévy’s account of the war he ‘saw’ in Angola was published, in a shorter version, in Le Monde in the early summer of 2001. His book – which includes the essay on Angola – was described by the Jewish Chronicle as an example of ‘excellent journalism’. Yet it strikes me as a fine example of the sort of superficial response that so often emerges when foreign reporters drop in on a conflict. His analysis is trite and unhelpful. And yet Lévy was writing a whole book – his chapter on Angola is 18 pages long – whereas most reporters only have 500 words in a newspaper, or two minutes on the radio, or 50 seconds on the television. That is not enough time to explain the details of a civil war, and yet it is what the news corporations expect from a foreign correspondent. I recall a television presenter on a rolling news channel asking me, as if we were discussing the state of play on a Nintendo computer game, ‘So who’s gonna win the war Lara?’ I had 40 seconds to answer. That ever-growing desire to keep the news short and simple makes life very difficult for any reporter trying to convey the complex narrative of a war.”
At just £14.95, it’s a bloody bargain: Communicating War: Memory, Military and Media, eds Maltby, S & Keeble, R. Arima Publishing.
What the critics say:
“Communicating War is a wide-ranging and important contribution to that debate, which also has the advantage of being right up-todate. Essential reading!” Nick Couldry, Professor of Media and Communications, Goldsmiths University of London
“Communicating War is, therefore, to be welcomed. Its rich collection sets the agenda, as does the War and Media Network, from which it emerges. Crucially, the collection reminds us of that which is ‘forgotten’, which can be as important in the war-media relationship today as those things embedded in memory.” James Gow, Professor of International Peace and Security, Kings College London
“A timely and hugely valuable contribution to the scholarly literature on news about conflict and war. The range of contributors, and the variety of themes covered, make this collection essential reading for students and researchers of conflict reporting in the post-9/11 world.” Brian McNair, Professor of Journalism and Communication, University of Strathclyde.
What a nice bunch! What revolting self-publicity.