BK Book Fest: Fightin' Words

Media War and Peace

I left the international stage at Brooklyn Book Festival 2010 twice, the second time was to stretch my legs and make my rounds at the vendors selling their wares and promoting their presses in the cold September rain. But before that, I attended the War in Words panel, hosted by the venerable journalist, Laura Flanders. It was a hot ticket. The Brooklyn court room brimmed with political junkies, and even my heroine of heroines Amy Goodman dropped in (Amy, if you’re reading this… drinks?).

On the docket: photojournalist Rick Rowley of Big Noise films, Moustafa Bayoumi, author of the (for some reason) controversial How Does it Feel to Be a Problem (Penguin, 2008) and editor of a forthcoming anthology on the recent Israeli-Gaza flotilla raid-debacle, and the dogged, eye-poking, truth-telling reporter Jeremy Scahill, regular guest on Democracy Now! and author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army (Nation Books, 2008).

The panelists were to discuss what it is like reporting on news and war from the Middle East, namely from Iraq and Afghanistan. What came shining through this trio of gems was the burning desire to present the voices of victims in the two foreign wars to the American audience. They decried the practice of journalists embedding with American military forces, who when attempting to put a “human” angle on war, tend to present the stories of American forces while shying away from reporting the perspectives of Iraqi and Afghani civilians. In the United States, we lament the deaths of 4,000+ American soldiers, but we show little pity for the losses of the 1-2 million Iraqis who have perished in the Iraq War, or the 4 million refugees who have fled their homeland.

What is required, Rowley, Bayoumi, and Scahill argued, is for more American media outlets (especially the mainstream) to report the Iraq and Afghanistan wars from alternative perspective—namely from the other side of the fence. Interview more civilians. Interview more Iraqi and Afghani soldiers. Interview more insurgents and enemies. Find out what ALL sides see in the various conflicts. Find out what ALL sides need and want and what outcomes are desired. Doing so will present a more vivid tapestry of the harsh realities happening in foreign lands thousands of miles away. Doing so will bring greater measures of justice to very complicated narratives.

To wrap up the panel, Ms. Flanders asked the panelists to quickly recount the stories untold to the American public that the journalists promised they would deliver. Bayoumi spoke of Iraqis displaced and living in Lebanon, while Rowley spoke movingly of a watching a five year old girl die after being shot by Israeli soldiers in 2002 in Jenin, Palestine. Scahill broke down when he told the story of a father who lost his son in Blackwater’s Nisour Square massacre in 2007 in Baghdad. Said Scahill: if we cannot learn from the quiet humility of the victims of U.S. foreign policy, then we’re finished. The lack of alternative voices in the news narratives represents a serious failure of American journalists to report these stories.

No doubt there are millions of untold stories that remain. The Mantle makes this promise, then, to Bayoumi, Rowley, and Scahill, and anyone else who has a story that should be told but isn’t getting heard: we will publish that story. (Indeed, look for one such story coming out of Baghdad to be published on The Mantle in October.) Send yours to info [at] mantlethought.org (info(at)mantlethought.org).

We wiped our tears and headed, fittingly, back into the rain. The next panel on my agenda: another weighty discussion on war, but in fiction this time around. Back to the international stage…

Afghanistan, BKBF 2010, Iraq, Journalism