One does not spend decades reporting from the most violence-wracked places on Earth and come out unscathed.
Veteran war reporters Jon Lee Anderson and Dexter Filkins made that clear in a conversation Saturday moderated by New Yorker editor Nick Trautwein, part of the 2013 New Yorker Festival. Prompted by questions from Trautwein, Anderson and Filkins, both New Yorker staff writers, told stories of the near misses, brushes with death, and lingering trauma from their years reporting on conflict.
In light of the staggering danger currently facing reporters working in conflict zones, particularly Syria, there’s been a lot of talk in recent years of the dangers and values of war reporting. That discussion was largely absent from the event, which was more geared toward storytelling and satisfying the voyeuristic curiosity that war journalism often inspires.
Anderson described an incident early in his career, during the first Palestinian Intifada, when, caught in the crossfire between rock-throwing Palestinian youths and Israeli soldiers using live ammunition, he was detained by a group of Palestinians he didn’t know. He was held for a time and then taken away by a pair of men who refused to make eye contact with him.
“The minute I saw their faces, I knew they were my executioners,” he said. “If you’re going to die, you know it.” Of course, he didn’t die that day, taking advantage of an alley, exposed to Israeli gunfire, to run to safety, although he said an Israeli soldier struck him in the face with a rifle butt before the ordeal was over.
Anderson appeared comfortable enough in the spotlight, but Filkins fidgeted in his seat and laughed nervously, his voice falling into a resigned monotone when discussing the particulars of some of what he saw in Iraq and Afghanistan as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times and then The New York Times. He seemed more willing to discuss his own ordeals than the deaths or hardships of others. Sounding exhausted and serious while describing a public execution by the Taliban or the death of a Marine with whom he was embedded in Iraq, Filkins spoke more lightly while recounting the time the Taliban nearly shot him for taking photographs of Afghan women wearing the niqab.
Filkins made it out of that jam thanks to some fast acting by his driver. But in another incident, he was arrested and swiftly whisked out of the country by the Taliban, who also arrested his fixer. Furious at his arrest, and thinking his fixer, Farid, was dead, he told the Taliban men at the Khyber Pass, before crossing into Pakistan, that they would be “hanging from lamp posts” when he returned to Afghanistan.
That sort of behavior is similar to how Filkins and Anderson said they were prone to acting after returning home from war-zone reporting.
“You feel anger, because everyone doesn’t know what you know, and everyone’s enjoying themselves,” Filkins said. “I have friends, they’d come home and feel exactly the same way and break chairs over people’s heads. I never went quite so far; I think time heals all wounds.”
Anderson described his struggles with anger when he would return from war zones, picking unnecessary fights. He found the ease of daily life offensive after the realities of war. He was once arrested at an airport for smacking a duty-free clerk.
“If I felt they were rude—again, this kind of frivolity of people’s lives outside—I would react,” he said.
The discussion ended following a very brief question-and-answer period. Then, as Filkins and Anderson greeted friends and shook hands with audience members, they seemed glad to be moving on, off the stage and out of the spotlight.