Nothing captures the absurdity of the debate around Syria better than an exchange yesterday on BBC Radio 4’s flagship Today program. Veteran broadcaster John Humphrys was interviewing Syrian expat Rim Turkmani, who is opposed to any form of military intervention. “But what if it was your family in Homs?” Humphrys probed. “I have family in Homs. At least a dozen,” Tukmani replied. “I’m terrified for them, but intervention will only increase the bloodshed.” At which point the interview lost its easy structure.
True, Humphrys was playing advocatus diaboli, but he was a lot less diaboli to the other guest, a Syrian advocating Western arming of the Free Syrian Army. Why? Because he fitted the now tiresome narrative — beleaguered people crying out for help, spurned by the West. Yet Tukmani made clear the full absurdity of the situation, in that no one is seriously contemplating any sort of full-scale Western military intervention in Syria — whatever is going to happen will depend on what Turkey wants to do.
So the debate about it has become entirely virtual — it is now an occasion for the wringing of hands, and the abstract discussion of moral obligations that no one proposes acting on. And just in case attentive readers are wondering how your correspondent can say this having supported Western involvement in Libya — it’s the very difference of the situations that suggest when one should and shouldn’t support involvement.
Libya was a revolution by the Libyan people across the board — whatever the shadowy nature of the leadership — against an autocrat with no social base to speak of, merely mercenaries and weapons. We assisted a process they had begun themselves in a clear manifestation of the general will, and in a military situation where strategic assistance was limitable and feasible.
Syria has several separate peoples penned within a colonial-era boundary. The uprising is partial, ethno-religiously based, and does not appear to have general or national consent. Assad’s brutality in Homs and elsewhere is indefensible, and it is possible that Turkey will wave a stick as part of negotiating a political solution. Anything else, would be attending to the horror of witnessing the killing of Homs, rather than doing what is possible to stop the killing itself.
That division — between our own needs and those of the actual Syrian people — is no better illustrated than by the treatment of the death of Marie Colvin, the veteran war correspondent, who was killed (with a young French photographer) in Homs two days ago. Colvin was famous as a three-decade veteran of dangerous war assignments, and became iconic, due to the adoption of a black patch, to cover an eye lost in the line of fire. She stayed in Homs, after her editor urged her to get out to get “one more story”, and appears to have been directly targeted by the Syrian government. Her death has dominated the news for a full 36 hours, with the always added subscript that “we should not forget ordinary Syrians are dying in large numbers”.
Amidst all this, no one has really asked whether her death, or her extended mission, had any real purpose. By the day she died, Colvin had already filed a long piece in The Sunday Times about the effects of the shelling on Homs, and added this comment to the BBC, which has gone round the world:
“I watched a little baby die today,” Marie Colvin told the BBC from the embattled city of Homs on Tuesday in one of her final reports.
“Absolutely horrific, a two-year old child had been hit … They stripped it and found the shrapnel had gone into the left chest and the doctor said, ‘I can’t do anything.’ His little tummy just kept heaving until he died.”
The hard question to ask is this: did Colvin’s reports add anything to our understanding of the situation? We were pretty clear about what a lethal siege looks like, even if we hadn’t been from lethal sieges of the past. Colvin could argue that by simply being there, she was making something happen — her presence in East Timor during the Indonesian attacks was said to have saved the lives of a whole community, though the story is not undisputed — but was that really the purpose of journalism per se? Or had she succumbed to what she herself mused upon last year, the confusion of bravery with bravado, of reporting with war junkiedom?
That suspicion is reinforced by remarks she made, about her continued work after losing the eye in Sri Lanka in 2001: “So, was I stupid? Stupid I would feel writing a column about the dinner party I went to last night … Equally, I’d rather be in that middle ground between a desk job and getting shot, no offence to desk jobs.” Front-line reportage or dinner party gossip, are those really the only alternatives? What about something more interpretive, that explained to readers the roots of the conflict, and the complexities of the situation? Would that not be — desk job though it is — in service to the Syrian people, perhaps more so than reportage, sometimes shading into war p-rn?
The suspicion that something more is going on — as it is with many war correspondents — is reinforced not only by that damn eye patch, a largely superfluous affectation that seemed to emphasise the narcissistic dimension of war reporting — but also by her comparison of Homs with Srebrenice, despite the many differences between the two situations. Having decided that the West should intervene, Colvin was, by her own account, trying to gather stories that would shame the West into acting. She seems to have achieved that with her death, with Nicolas Sarkozy stating: “That’s enough now … This regime must go,” the death of two European journalists apparently capable of tipping any scale you might want to offer.
Thus the whole cause is neatly contained within the Western drama of salvation, and the Syrians themselves become a backdrop in their own country — as in the last photo of her that has now become iconic, and a more telling picture than many war correspondents would want to admit to. Did her death add to our understanding? Or become part of the drama in ways which make clear-sighted action less possible?
The question can be widened to one that is rarely asked, and that is abut not merely the personality, but the class basis of many such journalists. Overwhemingly drawn from a fairly privileged elite –especially in Britain — or ex-forces personnel, their default setting seems to be a cynicism about organisational politics of any type, and a celebration of individual “conscience”, tied in with eye-witness, and often uncontextualised, accounts of suffering. For many such correspondents, trying to understand the meaning of a conflict is what Colvin disparagingly called the “desk job”, a hint of the wilful anti-intellectualism that often pervades war reporting (making all the more visible the quality of the work of those — such as Robert Fisk and John Pilger — who do put in the desk time).
Such journalists’ careers also serve the interests of other journalists, trapped in a profession that is increasingly devolving to rewriting press releases to wrap around advertising on a page of lifestyle features. The exploits — constructive or otherwise — of war correspondents becomes a way of retaining some meaning in a diminished profession, and their deaths consequently become a rallying point for professional self-celebration.
Bravery is a virtue, and Colvin clearly had it in spades, but it’s a virtue of means, not ends — and when attached to a series of agendas that are anything but those of the wider Syrian people, such exploits can have a contrary effect. At a time when an ever larger proportion of war reportage is being done by the people themselves, and then posted/smuggled/emailed to the wider world, there’s all the more reason to cast a critical eye over large organisations such as the BBC, and individual hero correspondents and the narratives they bring to complex struggles.