Somewhere in the stratosphere of what might be termed “first person journalism” you would find Robert Fisk’s classic on the Lebanese conflict, Pity the Nation. What is odd about that work is, though it provides one of the most outstanding examples of objective journalism, the author goes on at length in the preface to inform us it is nota work of journalism at all buta personal account of a journalist covering the Lebanese civil war. In the course of reporting on the twenty year conflict Fisk allows no room for sacred cows of any kind. An atrocity is an atrocity whether committed by the Palestinians, the Israelis, the Syrians, the Americans, or the Lebanese, and regardless of denomination; whether Muslim, Christian, Druze or Marxist. Which is what makes it so objective. Since Fisk is at the center of the maelstrom I suppose, and a key player in the narrative, he disowns it as a piece of journalism. Such self-abnegation in the interests of objectivity is rare these days. What Fisk managed in the case of a personal account – or “first person journalism” – is seldom found in the most clinical of dispatches claiming objectivity. The immediacy and humanity that the larger historical event often obscures is made tangible – and more important, an integral part – of such very human conflicts. Fisk can cavil all he wants about the book’s non-journalistic stature. I still recommend it to college students on the lecture circuit as an example of objective journalism to be emulated.
This would not be the case with John Simpson’s !Tie Wars Against Saddam. In all fairness, the work is a mixed bag. In spite of its deceptive packaging I found little else in the bookstores that would be of any use to a journalist in need of reliable source material to navigate through the Scylla and Charybdis of present day Iraq. But the packaging is indeed deceptive. I couldn’t figure out by the way the cover of the book and the title and the content all worked toward different ends, whether it was journalism, or autobiography, or history, or media studies.
Not being British, I had no idea who Simpson is or what his reputation might be in the media world. Which allowed me a slightly more unbiased starting point from which to analyze the work. Simpson, it seems, has a bad reputation for making himself the central focus of any story he covers. The fact that his BBC show is called Simpson’s World should be clue enough. Reading the book while traveling in Iraq, I was blissfully unaware of any of this and was able to evaluate the book on its own merits.
To say you can’t judge a book by its cover may be understated and trite, butin this instance the maxim has an uncanny relevance. The title tells us the book will discuss the wars against Saddam, and there on the cover naturally is … No, wait a moment. That’s not Saddam. Who’s the guy on the cover staring into the camera with a very earnest if somewhat shell shocked expression? That’s Simpson? Did he have a war with Saddam? The back of the book jacket gives us a bit more information. The book is about covering Iraq for over twenty years and the various attempts by foreign powers to topple the regime. Thumbing through the book, one finds two photo sections, which arc disappointing even at first glance. Several shots are clearly taken from a TV screen with all the horrible resolution and lack of clarity such “photos” provide. Look back at the cover. It’s another TV photo. Either very cheesy, or very postmodern. You decide.
Problem is, when you scan the shelves for books about Iraq that might prove useful in understanding the events of the past year, most books are woefully inadequate. Many stop in 1991 and the first Gulf War. Some cover the weapons inspection angle, others the sanctions issue. Some titles focus on the causes for the invasion of 2003 and others on being victims of Saddam’s evil empire.
Just one book on Iraq, with some historical background, a discussion of Saddam’s rise to power, the West’s relationship with Iraq in the proceeding century or so … is that too much to ask? Apparently, in this age of infomercials and airbrushed journalism, it is. Except for Simpson’s book.
Simpson does not skimp on background and history. You’ll find mention of the historical mists of ancient Babylon and the shaky relationship with twentieth century colonialism. At least it has information about religion and ethnicity, and behind the scenes political maneuvering in Baghdad, London and Washington spanning two decades or more. For someone about to travel in a disintegrating Iraq, the book fit the bi Il where no others even came close. That is, in itself, a major plus. If you need an overview of the ongoing Iraq crisis with the relevant background to help make sense of present events; this book is it. If only it had stuck to the topic a bit more closely …
Very often the author digresses into armchair (alright, humvee seat) philosophizing which reveals a degree of self absorption that grates. How many pages can the author go on about the tragedy of journalist casualties at the hands of “friendly fire”, before it becomes egocentric and overdone. I mean, journalists in a war zone do have an inklingthat they could die, right? It comes with the territory. And many attempts at political analysis fall flat, in a way peculiar to mass media reportage. What might make a nice sound byte makes dreadful reading. One of my favorites is the following:
George W Bush was not stupid, and he knew how to deal with people and win them over to his side, but he often said and did things that weren’t very clever …
A comment like that on a live broadcast might be saved with a sardonic lone of voice, or a bemused skeptical air, but in print it simply implies the author is trying to kiss up to people he may get to interview later. Any irony, if intended, is lost If there was no intentional irony, the mind reels.
On the positive side, many of me anecdotes about world leaders, the press corps and Simpson’s own two decade preoccupation with Iraq are more succinct relevant and illuminating. The author’s background, experience and commitment in an often dangerous profession command a certain degree of respect; especially in an age of “embedded journalists” (seeßunkies). Add to mat the practical value of beingable to use the book while in Iraq and you have a book that still stands above the common run of Iraq books flooding die market. Its not often you get to actually test a book with such grueling criteria. It was only after reading the book, and leaving Iraq, that 1 heard the groans when Simpson’s name came up. People wanted to hear that the entire book revolved around Simpson and his exploits. While I had caught glimpses of this reading it it didn’t justify die critiques of those who enjoyed lampooning the BBC personality. An ignorance of his previous work and the ability Io test the book out on the ground made the scrutiny of Simpson’s opus more balanced; albeit more stringent. In this case, the aiimor passes the test with skill and assurance. Even if he does live in his own world.