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The necessity of war reporting: An interview with C.J. Chivers

OpenCanada speaks with the New York Times correspondent
ahead of his visit to Canada this week: “When I’m on an assignment, I try and
do description, not prescription.”    

By: /
19 January, 2016
Smoke rises over buildings in the city of Misrata, Libya, where Chris Chivers has spent time reporting. March 28, 2011. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah
Catherine Tsalikis
By: Catherine Tsalikis
Former Senior Editor, Open Canada.

This week, the Canadian International Council and the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies host New York Times journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Christopher Chivers. He also spoke with Maclean’s political editor Paul Wells at a talk at the University of Ottawa.

Chivers has a long list of conflict zones under his belt – Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Russia, Georgia, Chechnya and elsewhere – and reports on the intersection of war, arms and human rights. After almost a decade and a half of filing from battlefields, Chivers has made the decision to forgo the frontlines in order to focus on longer-form investigative pieces on the war beat from home in the United States.

OpenCanada spoke with Chivers ahead of his visit about how his investigations come together, the heartbreak of covering conflict and why he is optimistic about the future of war reporting.

What are the characteristics that make a successful war correspondent? You served in the U.S. Marine Corps first and then went into journalism – I gather this is not the usual path for journalists who report from conflict zones.

It’s an unusual path for sure. But there’s no ideal type of war correspondent. A lot of the correspondence that I find most exciting is written by people much different than me, who can get a type of access that I could never get. A lot of it covers women, and in these highly patriarchal societies I can’t cover women very well. So a lot of the coverage I find most refreshing coming from war zones is by women, about women and families and life, and I marvel at it because I know I couldn’t do it. Or I could do it, but not nearly so well, and make it look so effortless and smart.

So I wouldn’t think there is a classic war correspondent or classic set of skills, I would say one essential skill hopefully predicts good math on the longevity, and that’s just judgment – judgment being applied to risk assessment. Other than that, there’s a whole set of skills that make a good journalist; add in an outsized dose of judgment and you’ve got someone who can be an able war correspondent no matter background, no matter age, no matter gender, no matter anything.

And, one assumes, along with good judgment comes a knack for storytelling.

That’s right, but before you tell your story you have to find your story. There are certain types of stories that certain types of people find and others don’t. So you need a diversity of people out there looking for the stories, to have the mosaic make sense, because all any of us do is put chips up on the mosaic. None of our bodies of work are complete. They can’t be, because we all have biases and limits that restrict what we can actually do. So you need a breadth of reporters doing a breadth of things to have a reasonably comprehensive picture of what’s going on in a place.

As conflicts get more dangerous – thinking of the war against ISIS in particular – are you worried that stories that are crucial to the record will be left out? What does this mean for the future of war reporting – already in places like Syria we’ve seen a lot of young freelancers striking out on their own without the benefits and protection that come with major news outlets.

Well ISIS is an extreme example, but throughout this [century] there have been places that were no-go zones for reporters of most any stripe or affiliation. And those places have obviously grown and expanded, but they’re not exactly new. I haven’t done the full analysis, I’ve been curious about how much more dangerous things are now than they used to be, or how new this phenomenon is. Some forms of reporting are kind of like base-jumping, there’s no question about that, but if you go back and read some of the accounts of reporters who were working in Vietnam, I think you’ll see similar things [on a smaller scale].

And of course I’m worried. The barrier for entry to go into Syria from Turkey in say 2012 was basically the price of an airline ticket and a few days’ expenses for hotels, and that’s a scary bar. The industry encourages journalists to multi-task and to have competencies across several [lanes], to be able to do audio, photography, words, multimedia, and file now. I think that’s encouraged a lot of people to take on jobs or give themselves assignments where the risks were disproportionate, and that’s why we’ve had so many deaths. 

How do you go about piecing together an investigation like the one about ISIS attempting to procure red mercury?

I had heard about red mercury scams for something like forever. One thing that happens in my job that’s not highly visible to people but sort of a regular feature of my life is that people come to me with arms information all the time, all sorts of people from all sorts of walks of life. Sometimes they want an identification, sometimes they want a quick technical assessment, sometimes they want a quote – I’m almost inundated with this stuff.

And so one night I was having a chat with a Syrian colleague who was having a chat with an ISIS supplier, who was taunting us because he was out pursuing some particular object and he wanted to see if we knew what it was. He sent us pictures of it, and I was like you know, I really can’t identify this, I don’t know what it is. So I was stumped and said, “okay, we give up, what is it?” And he said, “it’s red mercury.” I almost fell off my stool, because I had heard things for years but realized I [was] looking at a real-time quest – [one that’s] rich in ancient history – and pretty soon after that we knew we’d be doing a story on it. I have kind of obsessive lanes of information on things that interest me, and I didn’t know if that would translate, so I mentioned it to an editor, and they were like, “go do it!”

That was a mix of obsessive, long-term plotting of b-work and just a moment of serendipity, where something popped up out of this endless row that I till.

I was reading an interview with [Sunday Times journalist] Marie Colvin before she was killed in Syria –

I worked with Marie, we lived in the same apartment for awhile.

She called Syria the worst conflict she had ever covered. Is there a conflict that has left more of a mark on you than others?

I don’t think I have a ‘most’ or a ‘best’ or a ‘worst’ – they all affect you in different ways. They’re all different, with particular climates and ecosystems, with their own particular hazards, and they all claim enormous amounts of victims that you’re essentially powerless to do much more than document. So, frankly, they all suck.

Is it frustrating to pour so much of your life into covering these stories and then have to contend with people at home who’d rather watch the Kardashians? 

I’m blissfully unaware of the Kardashians. I don’t own a television and don’t pay attention much to popular culture – a lot of those infections just don’t reach me.

How do you immerse yourself into ‘normal life’ back home in the U.S. – are you able to remove yourself from the mindset of being in a war zone?

I’m still working on that…and I wouldn’t say I’ve figured out that toolkit. I’ll tell you this though, coming home is certainly hard but it’s not necessarily as hard as the ‘being there’ part. When you’re in those environments, what you almost invariably see is a complete train wreck. It’s almost always an accelerating disaster. It’s almost always informed by bad ideas. You can go to a conflict in its early phases and you can feel the energy and the aspirations and even the hope of some of the combatants, and you know in your gut it’s going to end badly. You know from experience that you can come back in six months and some of these seemingly idealistically driven, aspirational people – the organizers, the activists, the combatants – you know you can come back in the not-too-distant future and some will be dead, many will be maimed, and they will have collectively usually failed, even if they succeed.

And so I go to these places and just feel bad. Like really bad, down to the bone, pretty much every time. And that’s not saying there won’t be good days, good moments, good hours, there won’t be lives snatched from death, won’t be people saved, acts of kindness – there will be. There’ll be all sorts of goodness set against this awful canvas. But the direction is still almost always downwards, and the popular discourse about it…is always almost wrong too, and almost always culturally policed by the participants or even the non-participants, to try and warp the story into their narrative…the experiences aren’t fun. War correspondence, war journalism, is just a horribly overrated profession.

But a necessary one.

You’re right, it doesn’t have to be pleasant, and all I’m saying is it won’t be. It is certainly necessary, I wouldn’t argue against that. It’s totally necessary and vital but not pleasant, it’s not good for you, and it’s rarely going to align with any sense that much out there is working.

Do you feel like your reporting is making an impact?

Oh, I have no idea. I’ll tell you what my mission is: when I’m on an assignment, I try and do description, not prescription. I try to describe, as best I can, what I’m able to determine to be real and true. If I do that, then a reader, whoever the reader is, whatever they do, whatever their role is in larger society, has to decide what, if anything, to do about it. That’s prescription – that’s on them. What to do about it, what to feel about it, that’s on them.

I don’t know that it has any impact whatsoever. I feel sometimes its principal impact is dark entertainment for readers. That’s my fear, I don’t think that’s always the case but I wonder about it sometimes, that people like war journalism because it’s war journalism, and does it really change much? I think there are instances where it does, but does the body of it change much? I’m not convinced. But not convinced perhaps because I’m also not seeking that answer, because that answer is a little bit beyond my writ, right? It’d take me a lot of bandwidth to get that answer and I barely have the bandwidth to do what I’m doing!

With news outlets scaling back and feeling the pinch, do you think a younger generation of reporters will have the same opportunities to bear witness in conflict zones?

I’m probably more optimistic about that than some people. I think there will be models under which people can continue to pursue this, and we see that because people pursue it almost for no money as is. I’m lucky, I work for a paper, and for a group of people, a family and body of editors and colleagues, who are unequivocally committed to this, and who support it with all [possible] resources — the money, the editorial attention, the personal encouragement.

But we’re not the only people out there by any stretch – you bump into people who are doing it on almost nothing. Without naming names – I’ve gone through falling infantry positions, positions that fell hours before, where a guy was eating discarded rations left behind by retreating troops, but was out there doing the story, literally scavenging as he went. Is that the best model? No, but what I’m saying is even with almost no model at all there are some able people out there doing it.

You’ve made the decision to ‘retire’ from the frontlines of war. What will you be working on now that you’re home?

Well, as a matter of clarification it’s worth saying that I’m not out of war journalism, I’m out of frontline field journalism, which is pretty much what I did for a long time almost exclusively. In some ways, that may have closed down even if my inclinations weren’t taking me elsewhere at this point in my life, and my family’s life, because a lot of the places we used to go, moving with rebels and moving with local security forces, moving with various conventional armies – it’s not possible anymore. The map went from orange to red to black. A lot of these places became no-go zones, so the type of work I was doing, even if I wanted to rush out and do it now, there are very few places where you could still go do it.

What I’m doing now is more long-form investigative stuff. These pursuits often have roots in tips or bits of information that have been kicking around on the edges of my work files for years that I didn’t have the time to develop and flesh out. I have several of them going at any given time, they all take months, one took me two years, when I documented the abandoned chemical weapons in Iraq that were being used in IEDs and the effects those had upon those who encountered them. I’ve got a few things going like that now that will also take two years, or a year anyhow, and I’ve got others that you might read in a few weeks. They pretty much all have to do with conflict or the arms trade, and more tips come in all the time. I think for the indefinite future this is the type of thing that I’ll continue to work on. It’s a different way of reporting on the same beat.

I’d say it’s a reporter’s dream, as long as you have the right editor, and I do.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. See more information about C.J. Chivers’ visit to CIC Montreal and MIGS here

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