Documenting combat journalism

He just looked at me and shook his head.

“This is chaos,” he said.

The ‘he’ mentioned on page 184 of The Savage War is the late Jack Layton. I always trusted his words of social responsibility and hope. I think his words here describe not only the novel The Savage War, but also of our whole ten years in Afghanistan. Chaos.

After reading Canadian Press journalist Murray Brewster’s book, I can say I understand even less about our military involvement that defines my youth. There are so many details, so many names, so many interpretations and hidden agendas mentioned that it is hard to even focus on one aspect, let alone understand this ten-year occupation.

I felt overwhelmed with the amount of information in this book, and even more so, angered by the amount of ignorance Brewster writes about. But then again, when only a few Canadians have ever been to Afghanistan, we must rely on what reporters tell us to get the story, however bias and translucent it is.

In my mind, Brewster’s bias works to his favour in some chapters. I appreciate the chapter about  Afghan journalist Jojo and think it is important to know how Brewster professionally feels about the imprisonment of a fellow colleague. It adds to the story and creates an unseen call to action about the protection of journalists who are helping foreign news departments in their country of origin.

It was a favourite chapter of mine because it mentions something usually forgotten in war stories: balance.

“Throughout his ordeal, Jojo protested his innocence, but never denied his contacts with the Taliban. It was, he claims, his job as a journalist to seek them out and include their voices in his reporting.” [Page 188]

Side note: Brewster refers to both Jojo and Khan as fixers in his novel, which is a common term used by foreign bureaus. I recently read a BBC article called Women reporters on the front line: 15 Survival Tips, which I will be bringing up more than again in this blog post. I agreed with the statement, “please don’t call your local colleagues “fixers”, especially if they are fellow journalists.” I plan to follow this tip and only refer to them as journalist, as most times they are your lifeline in another country.


I think that Brewster’s bias works against him when he is describing certain things. On page 172, “the old man folded his hands on his stomach, obviously pleased with himself.” Really, he was obviously pleased with himself? How do you know this? Reading back, Brewster was there for a meeting with a man only previously met once or twice. Does he know this man’s tendencies? To me, he is making an assumption.

Brewster is selling this story as a narrative to what he saw in Afghanistan. As a reader, I can make my own assumptions.  Assumptions are for stories and not journalism in my view.

As a journalist, I look at this book as a story – a narrative of a journalist where he includes his own details and own personal opinions. I think there is much to be learned about the exclusivity of the Canadian Army and their, and the Harper Government’s, approach to PR. It mentions when the subject of the treatment Afghan detains were mentioned in the House of Commons, Harper would take the stance the critic was a ‘Taliban lover’, creating a polar ‘us against them’ rhetoric popular in Bush’s 2001-2003 speeches.

I also noted how some of the soldiers reacted to journalists. In an earlier chapter in the novel, one journalist went to a base on to be told to ‘fuck off’ by one of the soldiers. As a reporter, that would make me want to dig deeper. Why do they not want me there? What are they trying to hide?

I think it is safe to say by reading this book, as well as what has been released through Wikileaks and other whistleblowers, there is many things about Afghanistan kept hidden from the public.

When I was reading the book, I tried to picture myself there, doing the things Brewster was doing. I enjoyed when he talked about female journalists like CBC’s Laurie Graham, and even for a short moment, the late Michelle Lang. I have also had personal conversations with Global Winnipeg’s Lauren McNabb about her short time there.

I think that although this book may be a tool for journalists, female foreign journalists voices are not heard. Although I have not read Under an Afghan Sky, I have read interviews about the book which looks at the kidnapping of CBC journalist Mellissa Fung from a refugee camp near Kabul, Afghanistan.

Whenever I read something about journalism, no matter what the content, I remember that in most times it would be different for a woman journalist to be in that situation. Not because of themselves, but because of the culture they are reporting from. I feel more of a connection to this guide of tips and tricks from female BBC reporters than to Brewster’s comments. I am not sure why I feel this connection since I think all foreign correspondents seem to have a strong bond. Maybe when I start reporting more, I will think differently.

Comparing Brewster’s work to others, I have also seen two documentaries in the past couple of months about foreign involvement in Afghanistan: To Hell and Back (US) and Desert Lions (supported and funded by the Canadian Army).

I mentioned before that some soldiers didn’t want to talk to reporters and in the book in mentions how reporters were kept inside a wall of safety, being told not to go out and get stories. Desert Lions‘ Lt. Col. Mike Vernon was able to go and get these stories since he went as not only a journalist, but a soldier. He held a gun and a camera – which also makes it hard to look objectively at is as journalism. But he said he wanted to “get the kind of story that wasn’t being seen on the news.”

I think I always learn more from pictures than descriptions. Images seem to have more truth about not only the surrounding but the people. Unlike Brewster who describes people’s facial expressions, I can see them. There is truth to their expressions and reactions.

I didn’t really take too much from Hell and Back Again since it was focused around American soldiers. All I can really say is that director Danfung Dennis really went in to get shots of the story, unlike even Brewster and Vernon. His images tell a story due to the fact that he really embedded himself with the soldiers.

Dennis shooting his documentary from the ground.


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