Posts Tagged ‘afghanistan’

Memorial to journalist Jessie White on the facade of her former home in Lendinara, Italy

The excellent Bookslut site recently ran a fine review-essay by Jenny McPhee examining two new books from female American journalists who have reported from Afghanistan: Kim Barker’s The Taliban Shuffle and Gayle Tzemach Lemmon’s The Dressmaker of Khair Khana. McPhee astutely opens her piece with reference to a title of great pertinence to this subject-area and one we are proud to offer in Faber Finds:

Anne Sebba’s Battling for News: Women Reporters from the Risorgimento to Tiananmen Square (1994) is a compendium of vignettes profiling dozens of female journalists over the past 150 years. An excellent addition to herstory, Sebba’s book covers all nature of journalist, notably the long tradition of the female war correspondent, beginning with Jessie White, who commenced her life-long career in 1860 embedded within the ranks of Garibaldi’s Red Shirts, and ending with BBC journalist Katie Adie’s coverage of the 1986 U.S. bombing of Tripoli and the 1989 student revolt in Tiananmen Square. In story after story of intrepid women risking all in pursuit of the news, Sebba describes the systematic prejudice they encountered and their heroic battles to overcome myriad barriers in order to do their job.
In 1898, novelist Arnold Bennett wrote in Journalism for Women: A Practical Guide: “Is there any sexual reason why a woman should be a less accomplished journalist than a man? I can find none…” Yet as Sebba shows in the years since Bennett’s statement, the issue of a woman’s suitability for the profession has been constantly debated: During a war, are women a distraction to the soldiers and therefore dangerous? Are women emotionally biased, less objective, more partisan? Are they oriented more towards people rather than facts and statistics?

BTW the Independent‘s formidable political correspondent John Rentoul administers a justly celebrated slack/cheap-journalism-watch series entitled ‘Questions To Which The Answer Is No’, and I would say that familiar and chauvinist little troika that rounds off the Bookslut quotation could probably be admitted in toto...


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‘No country which relies on the law of the land to regulate the lives of its citizens can afford to see that law flouted by its own government, even in an insurgency situation. In other words everything done by a government and its agents in combating insurgency must be legal. But this does not mean that the government must work within exactly the same set of laws during an insurgency as existed beforehand, because it is a function of government to make new laws when necessary.’
Thus General Sir Frank Kitson, writing in 1977 for his ‘military autobiography’ Bunch of Five, wherein he described his experience of counter-insurgency work as an army intelligence officer in Kenya (1953-55), Malaya (1957) and Muscat and Oman (1958), as well as his peacekeeping activities in Cyprus during the 1960s. We’re pleased to say that Bunch of Five, along with Kitson’s Directing Operations and Low Intensity Operations, are now available to readers once again through Faber Finds.
Kitson’s fascinating studies have long been influential and keenly debated, and they retain an undying interest in an age when states find they must prosecute more sophisticated, irregular methods of warfare rather than the employment of ‘traditional’ military force – not least in theatres where the latter can have limited effect simply because of the difficulty of finding an enemy to engage with physically.
For Bunch of Five General Kitson did not deal with the period of his career served in Northern Ireland (1970-72) simply because in the mid-1970s this matter was too sensitive. In Kenya he had developed techniques for using ‘pseudo-gangs’ (comprised of surrendered Mau-Mau combatants) to infiltrate the enemy. In Belfast he was appointed to command the 39th Infantry Brigade and was authorised to set up what became known as the Mobile Reconnaissance Force (MRF), an undercover unit comprised of soldiers and former IRA volunteers (known informally as ‘freds’) who had ‘turned’ against republicanism. By 1973 the MRF operation was compromised, and once Kitson’s role in it was public knowledge he became an inevitably controversial figure. Yet Kitson was no shadowy, phantomic character – his views were no secret. In 1970 he had published Low Intensity Operations: Subversion, Insurgency and Peacekeeping, in which he clearly expounded what he considered to be the lessons of his various campaigns to that point.
Anybody interested in following the subsequent lineage of Kitsonian theory will find recent examples and arguments thick on the ground. This 2005 article from The Atlantic put the question “[A]re pseudo-gangs really the best model for the United States in its global war on terror, or in its ongoing battle against Sunni insurgents in Iraq?” More tangentially it is still surely worthy of note that Lieutenant-Colonel Nick Kitson, Commanding Officer of 3rd Battalion The Rifles in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, is General Kitson’s nephew. But to get right up to date, if you consult this piece on the Open Democracy website you will read a consideration of the “striking relevance to events in Britain in recent weeks” afforded by General Kitson’s Low Intensity Operations – specifically in respect of “the question of how a government can combat a campaign of non-violent direct action.” Readers drawn to these timely debates would be well advised to consult and engage with the full range of Kitson’s arguments and observations on the page.

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Anne Sebba

The recent success of Finds’ reissue of Virginia Cowles’ Looking for Trouble gives us a chance to spotlight another of Anne Sebba’s titles that we are fortunate to have on our list and which should be read in tandem with Cowles – that book is Battling for News: Women Reporters from the Risorgimento to Tiananmen Square. Originally published in 1994, it offers a terrific history of the gendered division of labour in the business of reporting from frontlines and battlefields – from the age when a female war correspondent was rated no better than an ill-equipped hindrance, to the slow grudging tolerance of women writers as exponents of ‘human interest’ in wartime, to our present day, when female war reporters have proved their fortitude and perspicacity under all kinds of fire. Virginia Cowles is seen by Anne as a mould-breaker in this regard, alongside other such luminaries as Clare Hollingworth and Martha Gellhorn. In a good piece about her time at Reuters available at Anne’s own website, she writes of how Maggie O’Kane of the Guardian told her “that the reporters she worked with in Bosnia were far too busy staying alive to worry about what gender their colleagues were. O’Kane’s brilliant style of war reporting, echoing Martha Gellhorn before her, may focus on children in orphanages, young girls satisfying soldiers as prostitutes or women scavenging for food – stories once demeaningly referred to as ‘soft news’ are now not simply regarded as the norm, but often as the only news that really matters…”
I asked Anne what she thought the passage of time since the book’s original appearance had shown us about how the woman war reporter is now perceived. She answered me thus:
“‘Battling for News’ was published just as the war in former Yugoslavia was changing the way we thought about women reporters – because the nature of warfare itself was changing so dramatically. Today more women than men graduate from media courses, and just as many women as men want to report wars. But there are still certain taboos about where to send a woman, especially if she’s a mother. Is that sensible or mad? Is it to protect the woman reporter or to protect the soldiers she is writing about? This is more relevant than ever in Afghanistan, since one of the key issues around the war is about allowing Afghan women to be treated fairly and, at the very least, given an education. Do women have a greater interest in reporting these issues than men?”
Readers interested in exploring more about this subject are recommended to look at the work of Afghan journalist Farida Nekzad, who offers some unnerving stories about her working days in this online piece (scroll down). Anne Sebba’s Battling for News is available to order from Finds, and comes highly recommended.

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