The journalist (and a good friend) Stephen Grey has recommended a long but absorbing article in the New York Times magazine of 23 October 2005 by Dexter Filkins, The Fall of the Warrior King, about a group of American soldiers in Iraq. Filkins shuns knee-jerk condemnation while exposing terrible failures of foresight, planning, training, preparation, and imagination. This is compassionate and insightful writing that compels a tragic conclusion: the individual American soldiers, both officers and men, however brutally some of them may behave under extreme pressure, are themselves victims, almost as much as the Iraqis who suffer at their hands. All of them are victims of a disastrously misconceived policy that demands of them the performance of a task which is simply impossible, driving them relentlessly into ever greater excesses of rage and frustration — or, on occasion, to deeds and responses of courage and humanity.
We need a similar analysis of how the British soldiers in Iraq, coming from a very different military tradition and to some extent from a different military experience, are responding to much the same pressures and dilemmas. There is a fair amount of evidence, but so far as I know most of it is piecemeal and inconclusive.
Stephen Grey has performed a valuable service in drawing attention to this article. He himself is of course a journalist of great distinction, having by his own virtually unaided efforts uncovered the scandal of ‘rendition’, under which the CIA and, probably, other US agencies kidnap individuals suspected of involvement in terrorism and fly them clandestinely, and illegally, to interrogation centres outside the US where they can be subjected to the kind of treatment in the process of extracting information from them which would be illegal and a cause of outrage in any civilised country. Unfortunately Stephen’s website does less than justice to his own achievements, not apparently including his famous article of May 2004, ‘Bush’s Gulag’, nor the fact that Stephen won a prestigious award for it. Peter Wilby wrote in the New Statesman of 3 October:
Congratulations to Stephen Grey who, as announced elsewhere in this issue, has won an Amnesty International media award for his brilliant New Statesman cover story (published under my editorship last year) on "Bush’s Gulag". But I have a little axe to grind.
Grey’s piece was shortlisted on an earlier occasion by the Foreign Press Association (which represents foreign correspondents based in London) for another award. It was beaten into second place by the Sun’s Trevor Kavanagh, who reported the contents of the Hutton report shortly before its official publication. Kavanagh’s scoop has received at least two other prizes.
The plaudits lavished on Kavanagh speak volumes about the London-based media, and I was surprised that foreign journalists had been sucked into this self-referential world. Kavanagh told us something that would become freely available to the public a few hours later. Its premature publication changed nothing.
Grey’s story – about how the US was handing over terrorist suspects to regimes that used torture – followed months of unaided research. It exposed a practice that was secret and intended to remain so. The disclosure, eventually followed up by almost every serious newspaper and magazine in the world, may have saved the lives of some and the freedom of others.
The media awards industry, which grows every year, habitually ignores such achievement. It prefers one-day wonders, often of significance only to Westminster cognoscenti, and stories about trivial domestic scandals. In that, I am afraid, it reflects the priorities of the national press.
I hope Stephen will overcome his natural modesty and bring his website archive up to date with his more recent articles, the news of the Amnesty award, and the text of his Gulag article, which repays re-reading at regular intervals in order to keep the adrenalin flowing and the anger glands in full working order.