Friday, September 17, 2010

A Liberal American Loses her Innocence Abroad

Every Man in this Village is a Liar: An Education in War 
by  Megan Stack
Scribe (Australia), 255pp

Too many correspondents barely try to step out of their home assumptions, and instead settle for recycling the reportage clichés and stereotypes that their editors won’t question.

Megan Stack reported for the Los Angeles Times for over ten years from the Middle East.  She earned a Pulitzer nomination in 2006 for her work in Iraq.  This book is the meta-narrative of what she learned about herself and about America at the real Ground Zeros of the “War on Terror”: Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Libya, Yemen, Egypt and Israel. 

Stack writes in a heightened, consciously literary style packed with metaphor that varies from the acute to the distracting.  She admits she aimed to “extract poetry from war”, but by the end has tired of that.  The book echoes a long American tradition of introspective accounts of combat, from Steven Crane’s Civil War era Red Badge of Courage, to Hemingway, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 and many more.

Stack enters the fray confident in her liberal democratic values, and confident that America is acting with just cause.  In the immediate wake of September 11, 2001, she is assigned almost by accident, as a young domestic political reporter, to cover the US attempt to destroy Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.  She expects the Afghans to be grateful that America is bringing them democracy, but finds that almost all of her assumptions are wrong.

The title “Every Man in this Village is a Liar” is drawn from a parable.  For Stack, it comes to refer not only to the stubborn opacity of Afghan politics, but also to the disingenuous spin and rhetoric emanating from Washington.  In a few short weeks, she learns deep cynicism and wades in the blood of innocent victims. She feels irreparably damaged.

Over the next years, she encounters courageous and principled individuals struggling to cope with intolerable local politics, and the often fatal consequences of American intervention.  People she interviews are killed.  The teenage son of a dedicated Iraqi journalist colleague is shot dead by US troops in Baghdad, retaliating randomly for a bomb attack.  She is beaten by Egyptian police while reporting blatant vote-rigging by the Mubarak regime,, and she sees that the teargas canisters used against the protesters are stamped “Made in USA”. 

Stack, the naïve correspondent, emerges from this narrative as emblematic of American liberal values.  Seeking truth, she finds lies.  Believing she can help make a better world, she finds a trail of resentment, loss and collateral damage.
Richard Thwaites was a foreign correspondent for Australian Brooadcasting Corporation, 1978-1983.