God, what a victory!

Jeremy Harding

  • Martyr’s Day: Chronicle of Small War by Michael Kelly
    Macmillan, 354 pp, £16.99, October 1993, ISBN 0 333 60496 2
  • Battling for News: The Rise of the Woman Reporter by Anne Sebba
    Hodder, 301 pp, £19.99, January 1994, ISBN 0 340 55599 8
  • Women’s Letters in Wartime edited by Eva Figes
    Pandora, 304 pp, £20.00, October 1993, ISBN 0 04 440755 6
  • The War at Sixteen: Autobiography, Vol. II by Julien Green, translated by Euan Cameron
    Marion Boyars, 207 pp, £19.95, November 1993, ISBN 0 7145 2969 9

Michael Kelly has produced a vivid, responsible account of his own itinerary, as a contributor to New Republic, the Boston Globe and the New York Times, through the Gulf War: from Baghdad to Amman; on to Egypt, Palestine, Israel, Saudi Arabia; into Kuwait and back into Iraq, via Basra; thence to Kurdistan. There are few sops to terrible beauty, whatever Kelly’s dust-jacket champions may say, and no excessive enthusiasm for the darker side of his material, either in the abandoned Iraqi torture chambers of Kuwait City or on the road to Basra.

Michael Kelly is a remarkable war artist, however. His reports have an artist’s sense of occasion, and even of genre: portrait, landscape with figures, life class and so on. Drafting and sketching at enviable speed, he gets his readers from one place to the next with ease. Denied access along with the rest of the press to the fighting itself, Kelly is alert and interested, far from any official front, studying pro-Iraq badges (‘Saddam. One Like You Makes Dream Come True’) in Jordan, watching Palestinians in the Occupied Territories slowly crushed under the weight of their support for Saddam, or discovering how a rich Kuwaiti hotelier kept most of his money and his family safe by buying off the Iraqi occupiers – mostly with TV sets.

It is only halfway through the book that Kelly enters the fray, so to speak, travelling up from Hafar al-Batin in Saudi Arabia to the Kuwait border and then across the ‘Saddam Line’, breached and deserted, in the closing moments of the ground war. The Iraqi defences are ‘pathetic affairs, a double line of trenches no more than four feet deep and so narrow that two men could not pass each other without squeezing by like passengers in a jet plane’. The soldiers in these positions have surrendered to an Egyptian brigade by the time Kelly arrives to watch them undergo ‘the first ritual of prison life, the stripping of self’:

Each man emptied his pockets. Their belongings made a pile in the mud, a sad litter of cheap plastic combs, letters from home, empty wallets, matches and the occasional cigarette, a few coins. In the background, two Iraqis lay dead, one covered with a coat thrown over his head and shoulders, but the other bare under the rain, bleeding still from the holes to his chest and back.

Not long afterwards, Kelly comes across a group of abject, shell-shocked Iraqis who have not yet surrendered, although they have taken the precaution of burying their rifles. ‘Many days bombed,’ a dishevelled Iraqi lieutenant explains: ‘Much air. Too much.’ They begged Kelly to take them prisoner but he and his colleague went their way, leaving the men with a pile of food and water, and cardboard containers of orange juice. ‘When I looked in the rear-view mirror,’ he writes, ‘they were all standing in the road, the wind whipping them, sucking on the little straws of the orange juice boxes.’

This image of Arab wretchedness drinking at a footling spring of Western convenience culture – the individual fruit juice – is one of the most severe in the book. Events are less shocking when Kelly goes back down the road, picks up the same Iraqis and hands them over to a Saudi support unit, who proceed to harass and bully them in recognisable ways, unacceptable certainly, but less humiliating than their first encounter with a foreign correspondent. By now, however, he has had enough. ‘I watched them weeping and begging for their lives,’ he tells us, ‘and I had to turn aside so they wouldn’t see me crying too.’ To his credit, Michael Kelly can cry in print without being a new man or an old hack, whose tears, like Emma Bovary’s, are apt to be as unconvincing as a row of cypresses outside a tavern. He does the thing we would prefer him not to do, and does it bravely.

Fewer tears are shed by the women in Anne Sebba’s admirable book. ‘You can’t betray the strains you are under,’ says Patricia Clough of the Independent, and much of this book is about the pressures of operating in a world where men have liked to have one set of rules for themselves and another for their women colleagues. The book is well-researched and likely to interest many readers who are neither women nor journalists. For one thing, her journalists stand in their own right, not merely in opposition to a men’s world. For another, like their male counterparts, they have pursued careers that catch the light of history. This is good material for anyone interested in the events and the public debates of the last hundred and fifty years or more.

Sebba quotes Ralph Touchett’s gloomy inquiry into the character of Henrietta Stackpole, in The Portrait of A Lady: ‘Is she very ugly? ... A female interviewer – a reporter in petticoats? I’m very curious to see her.’ She believes that the first woman to have ‘recounted world events for posterity’ – a generous definition of journalism – was probably Christine de Pisan, who wrote The Book of Fayttes Armes and of Chivalrye at the beginning of the 15th century. Sebba’s first study, however, is Jessie White, a passionate republican and a friend of Garibaldi, who proposed to cover the events of the Risorgimento for the Daily News but soon found herself tending the wounded in Sicily, under the provisional government. By the 1860s she was contributing to the Morning Star and the Nation, and nursing at the same time. In 1883 she completed a life of Garibaldi which, ‘perhaps because of her close association with the protagonist, was not always as accurate as her on-the-spot reporting’.

Many of Sebba’s journalists refrained from nailing their colours to the mast in quite the same way, nor do they all stand in the great republican tradition: Flora Shaw, eventually Lady Lugard, whose work was inspired by an imperial mission; Peggy Hull of the El Paso Times, the woman who came nearest to accreditation in the First World War, on the strength of her friendship with General Pershing; and Clare Hollingworth, who has kept her opinions largely to herself, preferring the clinical truths of the battlefield – hard to glean and harder to interpret. Yet as Sebba notes, it was this preference that enabled her to foresee the outcome in Vietnam. Hollingworth never made it to the Gulf. ‘She spent several nights sleeping on her bedroom floor,’ Sebba records in a footnote, ‘to prepare herself for the privations of war, but no newspaper sent for her. She was, at eighty, too old.’ She would probably have felt cheated by the reporting restrictions that Michael Kelly dealt with by taking a broader approach.

Yet the decisive ground in Battling for News is occupied by women of conviction: Emillie Peacocke, who survived for years as a respectable journalist until the advent of Tribune in 1905 led her usefully off the strait narrow into women’s rights and trade-union advocacy; Agnes Smedley, who gave her soul and much of her physical health to pre-revolutionary China, only to find herself blacklisted back in the US in the year of its success; Martha Gellhorn, described in her FBI file as a ‘PAF’, or ‘premature anti-fascist’, whose fiery longevity is the nearest thing to a live link between Christine de Pisan and Kate Adie; Victoria Brittain, now deputy foreign editor of the Guardian, who left the US for Vietnam with a child in tow, in order to explore ‘a sort of obsession’; and, for a time, Marina Warner, who recounts how she stood on the road in Vietnam, after witnessing some unspeakable thing, ‘exposing myself when I didn’t need to ... it was some sort of expiation.’

For women journalists with radical commitments, the choices have been stark. Jessie White in Italy, Emily Hobhouse during the Boer War and Agnes Smedley in China in the Thirties found themselves nursing or organising food and clothing – tasks which women had always been encouraged to do – in support of the causes they championed. Others discovered a kind of home in anger – ‘a permanent state of outrage’, as Victoria Britain says of her stint in Vietnam. Martha Gellhorn has paced the world in an access of rage for longer. Yet the vividness and resonance of her work makes the cult of anger seem ill-judged in most other journalists, irrespective of gender.

War asks everyone to pay a price, including those who do nothing more than look at it, and Sebba’s careful reckoning suggests that many women, harassed by rivalrous men, beset by the responsibility of children, or packed off with minimal fees and no promises, have paid over the odds. She believes, even so, that it has been an advantage, in many situations, to be a woman – and one which has yet to diminish. The key here is difference. Getting to the political class has been the prerogative of both sexes for some time, provided they have the editorial support. But the ‘view from the ground’, as Gellhorn calls it, has more often been available to journalists who cut an improbable or unusual figure in their surroundings. It was a great advantage, as Gellhorn knew, to be a woman at Monte Cassino, just as it was once an asset to be white in the townships of South Africa. This is not an issue that affects the distinguished salonistas of the British press, most of whom are left out of Sebba’s account as a result of her preference for more strenuous reporting. Women nowadays, she writes, ‘are just as likely to be killed or wounded as a male reporter’. This may well be true of the Barbara Amiels and Lynn Barbers, but only at the dinner table or the gala. With six years at Reuters behind her, Sebba seems to feel there is nothing quite as bracing as reporting from the field – for the public, as much as the press.

The Gulf War surely confirms this. There is a wealth of material in Michael Kelly’s book that could not be gleaned, at home, from the wheeled-on generals, the reconstituted images of bunkers caving in to ‘smart’ technology, the gameshow ‘debates’ or, indeed, from the grace under pressure of the BBC presenters, hypothesising in the Newsnight sandpit. Kelly is not quite right to call his book an ‘impressionistic account’ of the war, merely because it deals with what individuals lived through or told him they did, or with what he saw himself and how it struck him. On all these matters he is precise and detailed. Rather modestly, he seems to believe that clarity would only reside in a Domesday book of Associated Press clippings, running from Day One of the war to the bitter end.

Martyr’s Day is not in any sense a catalogue. Nor is it impelled by any single idea. But it is a thoughtful account of the war. On the road to Basra he is forced into a generalising statement about the whole affair, ‘an experience disconnected from itself, conducted with such speed and at such distances and with so few witnesses’ – Western ones – ‘that it was an abstraction’. The fate of the fleeing Iraqis seemed to give it substance:

It was difficult for Americans, who had done their killing almost entirely from afar, to feel a connection with those they killed, or with the act of killing. It was difficult for the Kuwaitis, coming out of seven months of hiding, to believe that their powerful tormentors had really been killed. The roads north filled these vacuums. They were, for miles and miles, rich with the physical realities of war, glutted with evidence of slaughter and victory. They become the great circuit board of the Gulf War, where the disconnectedness stopped.

Kelly is talking here about distance, one of the great fixations of strategists and inventors, who are always devising better ways to keep it without disadvantage or close it without loss. An account of the battle of Crécy, quoted by Sir Charles Oman, speaks of the French knights falling under a hail of English arrows, ‘almost without seeing the men who slew them’. This is exactly what Kelly means by ‘disconnectedness’. Killing ‘from afar’ has long been part of war. In Iraq and Kuwait it was new only in degree: the distance at which the Alliance fought its war was so vast, and the technology so advantageous, that, in Kelly’s eyes, the space between the two adversaries was no longer a margin of proficiency, but a huge moral interval between the taking of life and the ability to grasp that this is what was happening.

Distance crossed, or at least attempted, is the basis of Eva Figes’s exemplary anthology of women’s wartime correspondence. Her women, whose letters cover a dozen wars, from the prelude to the Wars of the Roses up until the end of the Second World War, are all vivid correspondents, with a wonderful variety of manners and sensibilities. There are roughly a hundred and eighty letters from 26 women, some familiar – Emma Hamilton, Queen Victoria, Florence Nightingale – but most of them not. Without exception, the letters are intriguing; sometimes they are moving; altogether they are a source of uneasy pleasure, enhanced and qualified by their right to the dignified repose from which Figes has exhumed them, in the name of her curiosity ‘about the nature and content of lost lives’. Thus, from Honor Lisle in 1538, during a respite from war, to her second husband, the Lord Deputy of Calais, after her safe passage to England:

Mine own sweet heart. This shall be to advertise you that I have had a goodly and fair passage, but it was somewhat slow, and long ere I landed, for this night at x of the clock, I arrived. I thank God I was but once sick in all the way; and after that I was merry and well, and should have been much merrier if I had been coming towards you, or if you had been with me. Your absence and my departure maketh heavy, also for that I departed at the stair of Calais so hastily without taking my leave of you accordingly, made me very sorry; but I assure you, my lord, that I thought you had been in the boat, and would have brought me to the ship, as you said ye would.

Where Honor Lisle was busy with annuities and inheritance on her return to England, Frances Nelson sets her sights a little lower. Two months after Aboukir Bay, she writes to Nelson, c/o Vanguard, about her housekeeping costs at Round Wood:

Every bill will be paid, the expense of drawing off the wine, bottles etc, came to £30 all very carefully put away against your coming home. I believe I mentioned to you the house was to be painted, and a part papered, I am almost afraid of papering all, the expense will be very great. Mention what you wish me to do. I feel very much your kindness in desiring I would indulge my self in everything you can afford. I go on in the same careful way I began.

She also notifies her husband that she has ‘by this day’s waggon sent a box containing 9 small stone jars of cherries in brandy, five of currant jelly and five of apricot. The season was particularly favourable for preserving. The torrents of rain bruised the fruit very much.’ It is a sad gloss on her own situation, damaged and steeped in longing, while Nelson pursued his several objectives in the Mediterranean. ‘Sugar,’ she added wistfully, ‘has raised in price beyond belief.’ In Naples, meanwhile, this was hardly the case. Emma Hamilton was flooding the market. ‘God, what a victory!’ she wrote to Nelson, six weeks after the rout of the French fleet:

I fainted when I heard the joyful news, and fell on my side and was hurt, but well of that. I shou’d feil it a glory to die in such a cause ... The Neapolitans are mad with joy, and if you wos here now, you would be killed with kindness. Sonets on sonets, illuminations, rejoicings; not a French dog dare shew his face. How I glory in the honner of my Country and my Countryman!

No doubt a man standing down from battle will not object to this kind of thing, though he may quibble with his wife’s estimates for papering the lounge. Yet Frances Nelson’s box of conserves provides the stronger interest and is one of many significant transactions referred to by Figes’s women. Thucydides tells us that the Spartans in Pylos held out on food packed in waterproof skins and dragged in, past the Athenian siege lines, by accomplished divers. There is nothing as elaborate in Figes’s collection, nor anything as choice as Peloponnesian linseed and honey in her subjects’ packages, but there is a powerful sense of individuals and families besieged by frustration, loss, fear, obligation – all manifestations of the two presiding figures here, Desire and Absence, who may only be appeased by the incessant movement of comfort parcels, pocket money and official documents from one part of the world to another.

On the eve of the Civil War, from Brilliana Harley, the wife of a Radnor Parliamentarian – and Eva Figes’s source of inspiration for this volume – to her son Edward: ‘I have sent your tutor a box of dried plums, the box is directed to you; tell him it is a Lenten token.’ From Elizabeth Mackenzie, nursing in the Crimea, in 1855, to her aunt: ‘Your box has at length arrived safely and its contents are most useful and acceptable.’ From Eleonora Pemberton, a volunteer in Boulogne in 1914, to ‘My dearest little mum’: ‘The cigarettes also came, also the Formamint which I am so glad to have and a parcel of 3 hot water bottles from Lilian!’ From Doll Ratclilf, running a canteen somewhere near Dunkirk in 1940, to her husband in England: ‘Could you possibly send me £5 in a note of the 10 you owe me now? I am rather short, and send the other £5 at the end of the month.’ From Lucia Lawton at an Auxiliary Territorial training camp in Guildford in 1943 to ‘Darling Mummy’: ‘Are you sending my sweet ration card on, because I must have it soon as Sergeant has asked for it.’

Excitement does much to compensate for the miseries of wartime. Nancy Bosanquet was an ambulance worker in Cardiff during the Blitz and seems to have enjoyed herself rather more than Nietzsche did as a medical orderly during the Franco-Prussian War, especially when she was at the wheel, heading for ‘the light of a terrific fire’: ‘The road was a stream of fire-engines ... and guns & cars, all going in the same direction. It was fun driving my party as the police were looking out for me & I had orders to ignore red lights so I willed them all to turn red as I approached so that I could importantly shoot over.’

In the second volume of his autobiography (1916-20), Julien Green, who did two stints as an ambulance driver in France and Italy, cuts less of a dash on four wheels. He is invariably troubled and often solemn. A touching photograph on the jacket shows him alone in front of his American Field Service ambulance in 1916. In the text, however. God was always with him; it is full of references to a Creator knee-deep, as it happened, in an atrocious war which He seems too vain or obtuse to acknowledge. This does not seem to trouble Green. His devotion still gave him time off from his dream of ‘slipping into God’s kingdom’ – time in which to study erotic drawings, read, reflect (often about sex) and also to write.

When he sits down to scribble ‘pages of pathological obscenity’, he is struck by a single sentence; it makes him laugh. He moves to the mirror and speaks it out loud. He is intoxicated by the power of language and his ability to do with words ‘what others could not do’ – a belief that this elegant translation seems to justify. The book contains many revelations, both for the young Green and for the older man, in the act of writing about his youth. A contradictory character emerges, with the lavish awkwardness of Proust’s narrator and, occasionally, the breakneck perversity of Blanchot’s in Death Sentence, whose plea to ‘those who love me’ is worth remembering as one comes to the end of the Eva Figes collection: ‘I beg them not to plunge unexpectedly into my few secrets, or read my letters if any are found ... I ask them to destroy everything without knowing what they are destroying, in the ignorance and spontaneity of true affection.’

‘Perhaps only love and war,’ says Figes, whose task is to reveal rather than protect, ‘can raise the temperature of life sufficiently to give real life and interest to letters written by lost generations.’ Yet the letters, thankfully preserved, illustrate how ordinary sentiments are heightened, rather than transformed, by the extremities of war. This does not square with the idealist view of the philosopher-soldiers, from Clausewitz to General Patton, that ‘ordinary’ qualities undergo some transcendent change in the medium of conflict and danger, which turns war into an ennobling exercise of the spirit. Such a notion is better stood on its head, by saying that ‘ordinary’ qualities, like those of Figes’s women and Kelly’s interlocutors, are the only useful measure of extraordinary times.

How we kick the habits of wartime is another issue – trickier, perhaps, for those who busied themselves far from the field than for others in the thick of it. Lucia Lawton, of the sweet ration card, spent her time with the Auxiliary Territorial Services in a magnificent lather – ‘Darling Mummy ... I see I have put no paragraphs at all in this letter but I haven’t got time to!’ – and, sure enough, the end of the war left her in a state of misery: ‘it seems almost unbelievable and somehow I have a feeling of anti-climax, I don’t know how I expected it to end, but I don’t think like this, and already I am scared – what’s going to happen afterwards, what is it like when there isn’t any war?’