News World Middle East Reporting from the front: What I learnt about journalism and war in Afghanistan

Reporting from the front: What I learnt about journalism and war in Afghanistan

Karen Middleton
Three assignments in Afghanistan brought home strong lessons about journalism and war for Karen Middleton. Photo: Supplied
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Reporting from a conflict zone embedded with military forces can feel like playing tourist at a war.

The first battle is to prove you’re not just a gawker, a passenger, a problem. Those charged with accompanying and protecting journalists on operations tend to see us, at best, as a mild irritation and at worst, as an outright liability.

We’re there to document their work, and trying to convey the searing experiences and long stretches of tedium those soldiers face. They’re already living on their nerves, like constantly riding the brake downhill. It’s no surprise to anyone who’s been alongside them that when they get back home, sometimes the brake can fail.

On these embeds, we live among them and overhear their conversations, record their setbacks and triumphs equally. It’s easy to see how this might seem like an unnecessary imposition. But I argue it is absolutely necessary. We’re recording their history, even the boring bits, and we’re bearing witness. It’s about trying to tell something resembling the truth of the work of warfare to which our country puts its name. Just the presence of people watching and asking questions may act as a reminder to any who need one – and most don’t – of the standards their country expects of them.

These personnel live for months in one of the highest-stress situations anyone can experience, and for a few weeks at a time journalists will be watching. We will ask lots of questions, some smart but a good many a bit stupid, and we’ll press for answers and for access, because that’s our job.

Naïve? For sure

They’ll trust that we will not take stupid risks, that we’ll keep our eyes open and watch where we walk, lest it should be us who make something blow up. And they’ll trust that we will both recall and recognise the signs we’ve been taught that identify someone or something about to do harm. And if something does go wrong, we’ll all be praying that at the very least we won’t make things worse. 

On the first of my three reporting trips to Afghanistan, I had no idea about any of this. I think I thought I was going to watch the war through a window. It was exciting and frightening. I well recall the moment it first occurred to me that even inside a military base, I was not necessarily going to be safe. Naïve? For sure. It’s amazing how you can believe you’ve thoroughly prepared to be a war correspondent and then realise when you get there just how theoretical that was.

During our five minutes in transit in Kuwait, they did a very fast fitting for body armour, flung sucking-chest-wound bandages at us and demonstrated where to stick them, hopefully to survive a bullet-punctured lung, and drove us back to the air strip. Even then, it took a while longer for me to twig that what I was doing was insane. At Kandahar we were pointed to the nearby concrete bunker and told that if we heard a siren we’d have a few seconds to take cover.

Suddenly I saw how silly my “window” notion was: thinking some imaginary force would shield me from the nasty realities of war because I wasn’t actually part of it. Finally, I grasped that a rocket could come through my metaphorical window – or more precisely over the wall – and it wouldn’t discriminate in favour of mere bystanders. That first night, I lay there fully clothed, unable to sleep and convinced I was going to die. By morning, I’d resolved to be as prepared and aware as I could be and leave the rest to fate. If something was going to land on my tent, I would likely die and that was that. It was quite liberating.

By my second assignment in 2011 everything had changed: the tempo of the war, the nature of the threat, the ideas within Defence about the value of media embeds. Now we were travelling two by two. We stayed a week at Forward Operating Base Mirwais in the Chora Valley, shadowing soldiers on foot patrols, sweeping across barren hillsides, pushing through cornfields and scrambling into aqueducts and up dirt levees. Everything was raw and real, senses dialled up to 11. Even the fear and boredom were addictive. I could see why some soldiers went back and back.

What it was all for?

My cameraman colleague and I went back one last time in October 2012. By then, withdrawal was in the air, along with the coming winter. The Afghan soldiers were taking the lead on local tasks by then, and plans were made and cancelled without warning. It was frustrating.

The Australians were starting to pack down the base, due to pull back to Tarin Kot within a fortnight. There was a strange sadness about it all. These bases had been people’s homes for months – for years. Soon places that had created the most acute memories would turn to tumbleweeds and disappear. I wouldn’t blame soldiers who wondered what it was all for. I certainly did.

We were at Hadrian when the blokes got word that a Special Forces mate, Corporal Scott Smith, had died on a compound-clearing operation in Helmand. The padre presided, a mate said a few words and they played Fred Smith’s Sapper’s Lullaby through a small speaker. The tears ran down my face and my heart broke. It was over in little more than five minutes. In just a couple of days, we’d gone from intruding strangers to fellow mourners sharing their grief, there on the verandah in the dark. We’d been present for similar bad news the year before. Another shock. Another casualty: Private Matthew Lambert.

In the end, war is about people. Embedding as a journalist is about seeing the people – the human impact – up close. I never met those two soldiers, the young men whose deaths were so near. But I remember their names. This is why we go – we go to bear witness – and why we should.

Karen Middleton reported from Afghanistan for SBS television and is the author of An Unwinnable War: Australia in Afghanistan (2011).

This is an edited extract from Wartime, the official magazine for the Australian War Memorial. The full article appears in issue 96, themed on Afghanistan, on sale 11 October.