The Secret Life of War: Journeys Through Modern Conflict

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9780099520986: The Secret Life of War: Journeys Through Modern Conflict

War has changed. In the past, states clashed and battles were fought between armies. Today superpowers are pitted against warlords. The Observer's chief foreign correspondent Peter Beaumont, takes us into the guts of modern conflict. He visits the bombed and abandoned home of Mullah Omar; discovers a deserted Al Qaeda camp where he finds documents describing a plan to attack London; talks to young bomb-throwers in a Rafah refugee camp. Unflinching and utterly gripping, The Secret Life of War is a deeply personal and defining vision of the inner, secret nature of modern war.

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About the Author:

Peter Beaumont is the Foreign Affairs Editor of the Observer. He joined the paper in 1989 and has covered numerous conflicts and crises. He is the recipient of various awards including the One World Media Award, the Amnesty International Media award, and the George Orwell Prize for Journalism. He was educated at Hampton Grammar School and Keble College, Oxford and lives in London.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Introduction

This book was in gestation for four years, and is the culmination of almost a decade and a half of travelling to war zones. It was finally written over a period of two years. With so many books concentrating on the politics and blame and ideology of recent conflicts, I felt passionately that there was a need for a reminder of how war is experienced personally in individuals’ lives. I wanted to describe the sights, sounds and emotions and relate them not to history, but to what it is to be human. That is what I have sought to do, seeking out stories of the killers and victims, the innocent, the not so innocent and the guilty, to explain how conflict functions, altering everything it touches. It has not always been an easy process. Both the writing and the researching of this book have been painful. I have lost friends and colleagues and seen so many others I have come across damaged. I have intruded into moments of grief and anguish and fear yet almost always been received with grace and forbearance. It has also been a deeply personal journey. I have realised how much I have changed myself by writing about conflict, sometimes in ways I do not feel comfortable with. For that reason this is my own story as well.

I also knew from the beginning that I wanted to write a book about the nature of those kinds of modern conflicts I had encountered during my career — ambiguous, intractable, long-lasting and very largely unresolved affairs which amounted to chronic afflictions of violence. When I began I was clear that what I wished to do was to give back a voice — or rather voices — to those affected by war, free from the organising justifications of those who order conflict. This book belongs as much to those extraordinary voices as it belongs to me.

I have been anxious to convey — as far as possible — a sense of the immediacy of the things I saw as I saw them and the ideas as they occurred to me. The result is that the vast majority of these pages were first drafted in situ in guesthouses and hotels, on camp beds and bunks, from Gaza and Iraq to Afghanistan, either in my journal, notebooks or on to my laptop. For the less recent sections I have relied on extensive notes and photographs that I took as well as dispatches written at the time. Armed with these, I hope I have faithfully reflected what I can recall.

Finally, and perhaps inevitably in a book of this nature, I have been forced to confront my own role as a witness — and therefore participant of a kind — in the conflicts I have visited. If I have learned anything, it is that there is no hiding behind the artificial conceit of the dispassionate observer. No excuse for editing out war’s true, fundamental nature. No excuse for accepting that war is inevitable.

Kabul,
May 2008

Shape Shifting

In keeping with their biblical Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse theme, the [US] soldiers’ Humvees are named War, Death, Famine and Pestilence. ‘You mean I’m riding with Death?’ asked a truck driver they were protecting.
Associated Press, September 2006

‘You know haji?’ Sergeant Garth Sizemore twists round to ask me. He employs the derogatory name American soldiers use for Iraqis, turning the term of respect for one who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca into something belittling instead. I do not like the ubiquity of this name among American soldiers, but I don’t say so, uncomfortable in my silent acquiescence. ‘He’s a shape shifter — haji,’ the sergeant says. It is not a question but a declaration. Sizemore is talking to me from his command position at the front of his Humvee. It is 2006 and we are riding a night patrol through Adhamiya, a Sunni stronghold in Baghdad close to the Tigris River, to check on the Iraqi police checkpoints and patrols and to ensure that the men on the street after curfew are real policemen and not killers attached to the Shia death squads hunting their Sunni neighbours. All in the vehicle know there is often no difference between police and executioners.

It is boring and dangerous work for the soldiers, checking ID cards and weapons permits on roads threatened by powerful home-made bombs and hidden gunmen. It is not a conversation: Sizemore requires no input from any of us. So I sit and listen as his words envelop me. My knees are pushed up tight against the back of his seat, bone jarring on metal. I can feel the front plate of my body armour digging into my overfull bladder.

Sizemore continues from where he is squeezed in behind his radio and the computerised console that allows each vehicle in the patrol to track the position of other US vehicles in the area. He is fishing for an audience, although I suspect his men have heard this one before. ‘We mow haji down in a field of dirt. Yeh? Drill him full of bullets. When we go to find a body, a dog jumps up and runs away. You know . . . I’m not fucking kidding.’ He coughs a dry, dusty laugh. Somewhere behind this story there is an unsettling reality for Sizemore that he disguises with this instant mythologising. There is stuff I would like to ask him but I fear it would break into this fairy tale, turn his words back into a desiccated, self-consciously wary exchange of question and answer.

It’s near midnight, and Sizemore is getting into it. ‘Did I tell you ’bout when we were fighting in Fallujah in 2004 in Operation Phantom Fury? Ha! We were fighting zombie hajis.’ I am struck by his images — this combination of horror films and video games and an older folklore. ‘We had this German captain.’ Sizemore switches to a heavy accent that is actually less German than an accumulation of all pastiche foreign accents. ‘Shit, heff you heard?’ Sizemore says in an Arnold Schwarzenegger-meets-Jean-Claude Van Damme patois, shifting the set of his shoulders slightly to occupy his new part. ‘The hajis are taking zom drug so zey are not afraid. Ve’re fighting zombies, so ve gotta shoot zem in ze head.’ He is interrupted briefly by a voice that comes on the radio, a rustle of electrified vowels and consonants amidst the static that Sizemore seems somehow to understand.

‘Did I tell you about the zombie cats of Fallujah?’ he asks, returning to his theme a few minutes later, flashing me a wide grin so that I wonder if all this is leading to some huge wind-up. ‘One night, we’re in this house. Yeh? And we’re silent ’cause we’re in the middle of the fighting. An’ everything is spooky. Really spooky because of the green tint of everything we are seeing through our night-vision goggles. And suddenly we start hearing this noise outside.’ Sizemore pauses then suddenly howls. ‘Eeeeeowwwww. Eeeeeeow. Eeeeooooow. And I’m going shit, it’s a zombie cat.’ He laughs.

I’m laughing too. But in the vehicle’s belly I understand that an experience is being reframed to make it easier for him to talk about, his war reinvented through the subtle alchemy of words. ‘We’re fighting . . .’ He pauses, overcome by the seriousness of it. ‘We lost some good guys back there,’ he says with a brief, quiet intimacy that surprises me amid the banter. Sad and soft. ‘You know, we shot this insurgent who had a bunch of weapons. And the Captain, well, he wants to go back and check for the guy’s weapons the next day. So we go looking for him inside this house where we killed him. We go in there, and there he is, surrounded by his weapons. And there are these three fucking cats that are eating his face off. Eating his face . . .’ There is a long moment of silence for dramatic effect. ‘Zombie cats.’ Sizemore waits for the inevitable guffaws before he becomes more introspective once again against the drone of the Humvee. ‘You know. There’s stuff from then I won’t forget.‘

Sizemore is a solid, handsome and bespectacled Kentuckian — likeable, even if I do not like the war he is fighting in. He is ruddy-faced and sweating under his helmet and the heavy body armour that squares off all the men into a uniform appearance to make them appear factory-constructed. He is careful with his soldiers. Checking, double-checking what they do. Swearing at them to keep them safe. But there is no guarantee of safety here — from the random, hidden rip tides of death and crippling injury. A few weeks later Sizemore will be dead himself, hit in the stomach by a sniper, the first of thirteen men in his unit to die in this deployment. A group who will suffer one of the heaviest casualty rates of the entire war. Pulled under at the age of thirty-one. His insistent voice silenced.

At one moment the driver almost propels us sideways over a steep bank. I know that rollovers, especially those into the rank canals of Iraq, have killed a lot of soldiers. I look out through armoured glass, thick and distorting as a porthole. We are on the very edge of a rubble-strewn drop off and Sizemore starts shouting at the soldier behind the wheel to pay attention. Later, when the driver starts to doze, he radios to the convoy leader for a safety stop — ‘somewhere where we ain’t gonna die,’ he announces — to walk the driver round the car and bring him back out of the world of drooling, weird exhaustion dreams into which I am also drifting, suffocated by the Baghdad summer night, and the cloying warmth of the engine and gear box.

I step stupidly out of the Humvee into a night as warm as bathwater. My legs are wooden from being cramped in the vehicle’s back. My feet numb as if frostbitten. In a single day I have clocked eight hours of back-to-back patrols in the suburbs of Baghdad, compressed in the back of Humvees, trying to get into Iraq again after a lengthy absence. Travelling with these soldiers the viewpoint observable is necessarily filtered. But it is not simply an outlook shaped by being American in a strange land, coloured by being the instruments of Occupation. Its outlines are described by preoccupations that are more discreet: the sum of these men’s upbringings and experiences. Tonight — above all — it is Garth Sizemore’s view.

I try to piss against the wheels with the other men but I am toxically tired. I am seeing things in the orange sodium glare of the streetlights. The light is a rarity in a city plagued by constant power cuts. Turning from the Humvee, I think I glimpse a large group of uniformed men sitting on a vehicle, watching us placidly from a distance of about one hundred metres. I stare and wonder why the others have not noticed them until I try to focus my gaze on the tableau and I am shocked to discover they are not there at all. I am looking at a concrete wall, drifting into a waking hallucination bred of tension and exhaustion, hovering on the edge of standing sleep.

I know about Sizemore’s zombies or at least the drug he is referring to. I tell him how I had stumbled across it by chance two years before — an antipsychotic, also used in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease, called Artane. I had heard rumours of strange prescription drugs being used by Iraq’s criminal underground, some of whom were involved in the fledgling insurgency. The stories mentioned a drug that made you brave, impervious to fear. They said that criminals would take the drug, sometimes in tea, sometimes mixed with alcohol, before going to commit an armed robbery, kidnapping or shooting.

Months after his death, I find a picture of Garth Sizemore posted on the Internet among the sites set up as memorials to the American military dead. There are no such memorials for the uncounted Iraqi fallen. I am sitting in my flat in London, at last finished with Iraq after too many close calls in my last half-year, feeling my luck was running out. I had witnessed too the consequences of violent loss there strike the person closest to me. But it feels there is no escaping. I am checking facts on the day I discover Sizemore has been killed. In the space of a few minutes I am confronted with the whole aftermath of his death: the articles and interviews with his family; the details of his funeral; the address in the state congress. Pieces of a life I had no idea about. I can only find one picture. The photograph shows him — the squad leader as I remember him — standing slightly apart, his men hunkered with their weapons against a brick wall in a garbage-strewn street, clearing houses of insurgents during the battle for Fallujah. His broad face is instantly familiar but without a voice I find it hard to associate the image with the vividness of the personality I remember from that stifling, hallucinatory night.

I check his name against his unit again and again, against the dates I visited his brigade, hoping to find another Sizemore to take his place in the roster of the fallen, not even sure why it should matter to me. I can find no mistake. And it does matter. It is not because I had known this man in any meaningful sense. But in recording his memories and shaping them, a connection has been made. Words acting on words, sacrilising war by fashioning it into the stories we consume.

Observed from a distance, war is defined by its most visible phenomena — the killing, destruction and displacement. They are the solid things, assessable through numbers, statistics and dates — even the bald two-line report describing how Sizemore died. I dig it out more than once in an attempt to weigh the death of this one ordinary man against the heavy mass of war’s attrition. But like the picture of the sergeant in Fallujah, these lines offer no insight permitting a deeper understanding. They are boringly, intentionally prosaic, skulking around the edges of his death. ‘Garth D. Sizemore’, they read: ‘killed when his patrol came in contact with enemy forces using small arms fire during combat operations in Baghdad.’

They represent the aspect of conflict it is possible easily to map through its battles and altering front lines, the war of press conferences, statements and newspaper reports. But conflict has another quality that exists at the margins of observable violence. A hinterland electric with words and stories, with the telling and retelling that enfolds war’s central facts, it is this periphery that gives to conflict its real, deep and resonant meaning. Alive with voices like Sizemore’s, searching for ways to describe their experience, it is imaginative and unreliable — dense with evasions, rumours, excuses, lies and hatreds. Yet even this unreliability is more truthful, more personal and more authentic than the cleaned up and sterile official version: real and human as it is in its failings.

As an observer I know that I am not exempt from the same tendency to remodel the experience of conflict, sitting and listening and applying my own interpretations and prejudices. I sample, filter and mix as I watch, effecting my own subtle, and not so subtle, alterations. I realise too that not only is it impossible to separate myself from the stories I collect but that it is necessary to channel those experiences through my own to try to render them in emotions and sensations that have meaning for me. Corrupting the data even as I download it, I become a tainted witness. The challenge becomes to be as honest as I can.

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