No More the Innocent Observer of War

An Education in War

by Megan Stack
Scribe, 255pp.
Reviewed: 11 September, 2010

A good foreign correspondent grasps the perspective of the foreign situation without losing the perspective of home. Some good correspondents end up “going native” to a degree that breaks the thread of credibility with their audience at home. Too many correspondents barely try to step out of their home assumptions, and instead settle for recycling the reportage clichés and stereotypes that their editors won’t question.

Megan Stack reported for the Los Angeles Times for over ten years from the Middle East. She earned a Pulitzer nomination in 2006 for her work in Iraq. This book is the meta-narrative of what she learned about herself and about America at the real Ground Zeros of the “War on Terror”: Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Libya, Yemen, Egypt and Israel.

At first I was skeptical about this project – did we need another self-centred tale about a courageous American woman confronting beastly Muslims? That’s already a cliché, where self-serving “Clash of Civilisations” racism cashes in on “War on Terror” panic.

Stack writes in a heightened, consciously literary style packed with metaphor that varies from the acute to the distracting. She admits she aimed to “extract poetry from war”, but by the end has tired of that. The book echoes a long American tradition of introspective accounts of combat, from Steven Crane’s Civil War era Red Badge of Courage, to Hemingway, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 and many more.

Stack enters the fray confident in her liberal democratic values, and confident that America is acting with just cause. In the immediate wake of September 11, 2001, she is assigned almost by accident, as a young domestic political reporter, to cover the US attempt to destroy Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. She has no qualms about flirting with an Afghan warlord to get access to the story, but is shocked when he becomes lecherous. She expects the Afghans to be grateful that America is bringing them democracy, but finds that almost all of her assumptions are wrong.

The title “Every Man in this Village is a Liar” is drawn from a parable. For Stack, it comes to refer not only to the stubborn opacity of Afghan politics, but also to the disingenuous spin and rhetoric emanating from Washington. In a few short weeks, she learns deep cynicism and wades in the blood of innocent victims. She feels irreparably damaged.

Part of the damage is an addiction to the adrenalin of combat reporting. Returning home, she finds she cannot abide the facile attitudes of people who have not shared her experience, so she seeks a return to the new American frontline in Iraq.

Over the next years, she encounters courageous and principled individuals struggling to cope with intolerable local politics, and the often fatal consequences of American intervention. People she interviews are killed. The teenage son of a dedicated Iraqi journalist colleague is shot dead by US troops in Baghdad, retaliating randomly for a bomb attack. She is beaten by Egyptian police while reporting blatant vote-rigging by the Mubarak regime,, and she sees that the teargas canisters used against the protesters are stamped “Made in USA”.

She is enraged by a conceited young Israeli solder blocking her entry to Nablus in Palestine, and wants to remind him that his uniform and weapons are bought with funds from American taxpayers including herself. She finds she has nothing to say to an idealistic young Arab girl, American-educated, who is in tears because the Abu Grahib torture revelations have destroyed her hope that “America was better than that”.

The odyssey ends, years later, in a series of absurd conversations with Lebanese mental patients abandoned in a hospital in Tyre under indiscriminate Israeli bombardment.

Repeatedly, Stack’s outlandish status as an assertive single woman gets her both into, and out of, dangerous situations. Her insouciance and her American passport seem to comprise a protective amulet, but the death and violence is eating away at her soul. “You can survive and not survive, both at the same time”, she concludes.

She also concludes that the War on Terror never really existed, and that most of the destruction carried out in its name was no more than directionless floundering. She doesn’t see that 3000 tragedies in New York justify 300,000 tragedies as real collateral damage in a doomed and imaginary war.

Stack the naïve correspondent emerges from this narrative as emblematic of American liberal values. Seeking truth, she finds lies. Believing she can help make a better world, she leaves a trail of resentment, loss and collateral damage.

Raised a Catholic, she comes to repudiate the Biblical story in which Abraham thinks God wants him to kill his own son as a test of faith. The “mystery of faith” argument does not impress when her experience has taught her that “centuries later, the Middle East is still packed with murderers who believe they are doing God’s will. . . This is still how Middle East battles are fought by Arabs, Israelis and now Americans. Blind faith is the footbridge that takes us from virtuous religion to self-righteous violence.”

Megan Stack has repeatedly put her own life in jeopardy to reach these conclusions. Armchair ideologues may dismiss this account as another humanistic whine from a privileged Western liberal. I found it honest, compelling, and a timely tonic against some chronic self-deceptions that bedevil Western presence in the rest of the world.

Richard Thwaites was a foreign correspondent for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 1978-1983.