Feature After spending his career reporting on the human and social tragedies of war, Peter Beaumont is convinced that it produces no victors, only victims.
After spending his career reporting on the human and social tragedies of war, Peter Beaumont is convinced that it produces no victors, only victims. Alan Philps meets him ahead of the launch of his new book, a project that pulled him back from the edge.
In every war, those covering it for the media fall into two general types. There are the "blow-ins", run-of-the-mill reporters who have gone on a hostile- environment course and then bought themselves some boots appropriate for desert, jungle or mountain. Then there are the professionals, the "brothers", as they are known, for the few women among them are honorary males. The brothers tend to have lots of kit hanging from belts, but mostly they are defined by their aura of experience and invincibility. You can tell the blow-ins when the first shot is fired: they are fazed. Unlike in the movies, in real life you cannot tell who is firing at whom or from where. The brothers just duck.
Peter Beaumont is a member of the brotherhood. Or rather, he was for 13 years, during which he covered conflicts from Bosnia to Afghanistan for the venerable British weekly newspaper, The Observer. I last met him in the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad in 2003, where the air conditioning-free rooms were so hot that we could only sit and sweat in our underwear. When we meet again, an approximately Middle Eastern atmosphere is provided by a Turkish restaurant, but outside, the London rain is bucketing down.
He announces that he has just bought a family pet, a West Highland terrier, a breed of small dog whose image sells a seriously upmarket brand of pet food in the UK. At the age of 47, he is clearly slowing down. As we sip orange juice and lemonade, I feel it is acceptable for me - a blow-in - to ask a brother how crazy he has become. This is not a stupid question. He has spent two years writing a book, The Secret Life Of War: Journeys Through Modern Conflict. Everyone knows that the fragile glamour of the war correspondent lies in the fact that there are usually only three career outcomes: early death, debilitating psychological illness, or the type of burn-out that turns you into a grey ghost of the newsroom, tapping young reporters on the shoulder late at night to tell them of long forgotten wartime exploits. "Of course it damaged me, those years of covering wars," says Beaumont. "The question is how much. It can take up to 19 years for the damage to show itself." He went through what he calls a "period of recklessness" in 2007 - not just in Iraq, but at home. "I needed an awful lot of stimulation." He pauses. "Maybe I have come through the other side." He does not seem to be too damaged. His speech is measured, and his tone is cerebral and analytical. He does not display the need to talk about himself that characterises many of those scarred by war. There is a growing literature of war correspondents baring their psychological wounds. Anthony Loyd, a former British army officer, described in Another Bloody Love Letter how war reporting was the only activity that kept him focused enough to stop abusing heroin. Jon Steele, an American war cameraman, wrote a book called War Junkie, after he collapsed in the departure lounge of Heathrow Airport, a babbling nervous wreck. If not exactly a war junkie, Beaumont certainly felt the addictive pull of war. For those like him, time plods along rather dully in civilian life. But in a conflict zone, time speeds and slows according to your adrenaline levels. It freezes when you have the muzzle of a gun pressed into the back of your neck, but sprints when you are running away to safety. Unlike some other war reporters, he has tried not to put his psyche and private life at the centre of The Secret Life Of War. The book is actually about how war damages everyone - soldiers, civilians and witnesses - and pulls societies apart. It is, he says, a "domestic account" of war, not a work of politics. But the personal story that led him to hang up his body armour is worth hearing. "Until 2007 I had been blessed. I had not been so close to danger. Then it all changed. In Iraq, whenever I went out something terrible happened. On my last day, a car bomb exploded about 15 metres in front of us. When I got home I had dreams of explosions. Before that I had been in another military convoy when the vehicle in front had been blown up, killing all four people inside. And I was in an ambush, and had been sniped at. When I got home I found I was wired and jumpy." Beaumont started to behave recklessly, creating danger by going solo rock climbing. one day in September last year he was due to fly to Sarajevo, for a routine assignment in Bosnia. "I woke up and I realised I never wanted to see an airport again. I didn't want the smell or the sight of them. I felt the grey, boring moments spent waiting in departure lounges had eaten up my life. I didn't make it to Heathrow." That was the time he sought help. One of the triggers - apart from the danger - was the strain of writing the book, forcing him to clarify his ideas, justify the past decade and a half of his life, and draw a conclusion. The conclusion was that he had become addicted to danger. He knew he had changed when, one night in his Baghdad hotel, he cradled a Kalashnikov and, for the first time in his life, felt he was ready to fire it. "I can see that there is a virtue in having covered conflict. But does it really tell you anything more? The most interesting things are not the combat, but the marginal stories which tell you how war transforms things. This is what the book is about." When he says marginal, he means that there are no politicians, no historical background, no apportioning of blame. The words victory and defeat do not figure. He relishes the complex, avoiding what he calls the trend towards covering war as "infotainment" by focusing on stereotypes and subjects that easily attract the sympathy of the viewer or reader. The role of journalism, he says, should be to attempt to explain what is apparently repellent, such as why a Palestinian ambulance woman should decide to become a suicide bomber. The battlefields stretch from Gaza to Kandahar, but you will find no potted history of the Middle East, or diatribes against the Washington neo-cons. While embedded with the US military, he discovered the role of the knife, rarely used in action but a big part of army culture. He discovered how killing affects a soldier's psyche: it all depends on the proximity of the victim. If the means of death is a bomb dropped from high altitude, there is little effect. If it is a bayonet, the memory will never go away. In Iraq he learned to recognise how the damage caused to the human body by the heavy Kalashnikov bullet is different from the slim but unstable round used by the Americans. But more dangerous than the bullet is the microbe-laden debris - dust and shreds of clothing - that the bullet sucks inside in its wake. These can fester, leading to total organ failure, particularly in a body whose immune system has been weakened by years of sanctions. Iraq today is that body. The bullet that entered with the 2003 invasion was clean - but what it dragged in its wake has poisoned the whole country. "My conclusions are bleak. I don't think there is anything hopeful in war," Beaumont says. He insists that this is not a political book, but in fact, every word is a counterblast to Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, who led Britain into a war with Iraq on the false premise that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Though this is ancient history, it is still a live controversy in Britain, particularly among people on the Left. So while Beaumont writes movingly and does not shout or jab his finger, the aim is not to allow anyone to believe that war is anything but destruction - of lives, of morality and of the foundations of society. The most painful chapter is set in Gaza. Palestine used to be a rallying cry for Arabs and Muslims, a focus of mobilisation and force for progress. But when Beaumont returns to Gaza he finds only sordid fighting between local clans. He investigates the war between the Masri family and the Kafarna clan, a conflict to be decided, seemingly, by the number of children each side can kill. He then sees how the Hillis clan is split apart by divisions between Fatah and Hamas, until the defeated remnants of the Fatah loyalists are forced to take refuge - stripped to their underclothes - in Israel. It is not an edifying spectacle. The truth of war is that it does not end. "It is very rare that you have clear victory and clear defeat in war. It happened in Germany and Japan in 1945. Then they could rebuild and start again. The conflicts I have seen have been stopped by some outside intervention. This is true of Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Israel-Palestine, even during the so-called Oslo years of peace. The front lines are still inside people's heads. These conflicts constantly flare up. There is a tendency in the West to go in and impose top-down solutions. For me, that's not the solution. You need reconciliation, legitimacy and justice." State building is much more difficult, costly and expensive than politicians dare to say. "It's not good enough to put new structures in place. In Bosnia these new structures are like a film set - it looks great from a distance, but when you get up close and push it, it wobbles." Beaumont accepts that there may be necessary and just wars. But his personal journey has been through a lot of what he considers unnecessary conflicts. Anyone who reads the book, he insists, cannot fail to understand that the supreme imperative is to prevent war. For one who has spent so much of his life probing the wounds of the Muslim and Arab world, his vision for the future is not so bleak as his portrait of the recent past. He does not accept the idea that the Arab world is doomed to remain a cauldron of radicalisation, where young men will always be more numerous than jobs for them to do and will always be drawn to take up arms. "My gut feeling is that it won't be as bad as people say. Radicalisation will reach a high water mark, and then move back. At some point, there is always a halt. People look around and forces which have been kept in check for decades come to the fore. "Even in the most bestial of wars there are people working to limit bestiality. There are always people prepared to take the personal risk and stand out and step forward. Even in Iraq in 2007, there was courageous dissent, even if people knew the consequence was a firing squad. My heroes were Iraqi journalists who carried on working when other journalists were being killed. Or women teachers who went to school when other women teachers were being killed. People who still believed enough to carry on." Beaumont is now happy to fly in aircraft again, but his days of putting his life at risk on the front line are over. The aura of invincibility that surrounds the "brothers" in the press corps is, he realises, fake. "You con yourself that you have all these great skills. Most of the time you get lucky. But sometimes you don't. In the end, it's just a numbers game." The Secret Life Of War: Journeys Through Modern Conflict, Harvill Secker, Dh92