Carolin Emcke on Reporting in Iraq, 2007
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German author and journalist Carolin Emcke speaks about reporting in Iraq in an audio clip from the 2007 PEN World Voices event “Reporting in Iraq, Living with Terror: Mark Danner & Carolin Emcke.”
Carolin Emcke: First of all, I’d like to talk a little bit about my own experience with this war, and what amazed me most about it was that when it began I thought this war would be a test case of a war in the age of information. A test case for us as reporters, but also for the global community to handle and respond to the knowledge that they would have about this particular war. And I have to say that the Iraq war for me—is still today—an incomprehensible, really a paradox of war. And the paradox of war is about this being a war we could see and watch and witness being built up. We could see and watch and witness this being constructed. Not that we were lacking knowledge prior to this war, we really cannot say that we didn’t know what was happening. We were all sitting there and waiting for this to come about. It was so evitable that it was inevitable to some extent. I’m sure you’ll remember how we had leads and hints quite shortly after September 11 that already indicated that this would be, somehow, the perspective, the vantage point of this administration. So, I have to say I’ve been looking in horror even before the horror actually began, because there seemed to be such a paradox about knowing about the lies leading to this war and yet not being able to stop it.
What, practically, that also meant as a war reporter who had covered Columbia, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Lebanon, places all over the world, and I’ve never, ever been sitting somewhere waiting, knowing that this would happen and knowing how it was prepared and really constructed. So the first paradox, I think, is that we knew everything we needed to know about this war, and yet could not stop it. Now I think we have the opposite paradox. Now we have a situation in which we really want and need to know about what’s going on and we don’t. We can’t, exactly for the limitations on our work that Mark talked about, and one should also say what these limitations really also are, why they actually really stop us from giving some sort of adequate representation of what’s happening. Not just because of what you’ve said, I think, but also because the way we travel on the ground is limited due to security reasons. We have to travel, if we want to be to some extent safe and not kidnapped on the first day but maybe, I don’t know, after 14 days, we need to travel with people who are protecting us. Now, the problem about this is that we don’t look as neutral bystanders anymore, but we’re seen and we’re perceived as part of the military actors and players. And that’s the way we look. We travel in cars, and we travel in convoys, we travel with bodyguards, at least some of us do, and so it’s very very difficult for civilians to really tell who we are. And, you know, the basis for actually giving a sense for what war actually means, not just for the soldiers, not just for our own troops, but on the ground, for civilians, for families, for people who live there, it’s absolutely indispensable that we find a way to meet them, to have access to them, to have them trust us.
And why should they trust someone who travels the way we travel nowadays? Basically, the limitations, not just meaning that we’re only standing from the hotel and get indeed a very limited perspective on what’s happening, but it also means that the people, who are the first victims of war, don’t get represented at all. And it’s very, very difficult to meet them in the first place, to get out of these security zones, to get out of the military unit you’re traveling with to actually meet them and then have them trust us. Why should they? So I think that’s an enormous damage that we’re doing to ourselves and we’re doing to the people for whom this whole work as a war reporter actually matters. And I think indeed it’s a paradox, because it’s the war that’s dominating our lives in past years, and unfortunately probably will continue to do so. And despite us going there we still know very, very little, and we don’t know anything about what really matters to write about.