The Secret Life of War: Journeys Through Modern Conflict by Peter Beaumont

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The Secret Life of War: Journeys Through Modern Conflict by Peter Beaumont

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Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: An analysis of the nature of war embedded in 20 years’ reporting from the frontline. Deceptively deep, intelligent, backed up with supporting research. Should be compulsory reading across the planet.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: May 2010
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099520986

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Peter Beaumont is the Foreign Affairs editor at The Observer. He joined the paper in 1989 and has spent much of the intervening time dealing with the kind of 'foreign affairs' that is better described as 'war reporting'. The Secret Life of War is a distillation of his years in the field. It is a book ill-served by both its title and its cover, except maybe insofar as both might serve to sneak it onto the bookshelves of those who really need to read it, but probably wouldn't choose to do so were it more accurately wrapped.

The Secret Life of War should be the subtitle. The main title should be something a little blunter. Several of his chapter headings would have done: Shape Shifting, or Blast Waves, or The Contaminated Wound. Similarly the cover photo (on the Vintage paperback edition) singularly fails to convey anything meaningful about the nature of the contents.

Those are the quibbles. Once you've opened the book, there is nothing more to criticise.

The Times review quoted on the cover uses the words "deeply perceptive". Every time I pick the book up, I conflate those words into the single description "deceptive". It is a very deceptive book. It is a story of a war reporter's experiences in the European, Eastern and African battlefields of the last twenty years, but it isn't about the history of those conflicts. Nor is it really about the events that are related, anecdotally, disconnected from any continuing narrative of a reporter's life. It is about War itself.

It is about the euphemisms we use to talk about it: the Troubles, the Conflict, the Intifada, insurgency… and on and on.

It is about the consequences of War on the individuals caught up in it, whether they are protagonists or bystanders: death, injury, homelessness, joblessness, despair, confusion, hatred, anger, violence, distortion.

It is about the nature of the people who are driven to go to war zones to report on what is happening, and just as importantly, what this does to them, for they are people too.

The Secret Life of War IS deceptive. Deceptively deep, full of analysis and insight, and smothered in the kind of analysis that sounds so blatantly blooming obvious when you're presented with it that you cannot help wondering why the world leaders aren't listening and taking heed.

Not for nothing is Beaumont a winner of the George Orwell prize for journalism. He is a master of observation, focussing on the small, everyday details that serve to illuminate depth and breadth around them. He looks at the photographs on the walls when he is interviewing people. He considers the nature of the weapons used, and of those carried but (generally speaking) not used.

He is skilled craftsmen in the wielder of words. He uses simple language, but stunning analogies. Having explained the chemical nature of blasts (be they from an F16's 1000lb bomb or a hand-lobbed artillery shell), describing how materials are mixed in particular proportions to reach the point where they can be detonated to produce an explosion – the explosive limit – he goes on to describe the explosive limits of societies: how hatred, fear, desperation, hopelessness can combine in proportions that make 'explosion' (mass exodus or mass murder or other blast waves) inevitable.

Eric Blair would have been proud of him. Indeed, Eric Blair would have been right there beside him doing exactly what Beaumont did. Bearing witness. Making copy. But then, ultimately, really processing what he had seen and heard and what it meant, to him personally and (one hopes) to the world at large.

The book is neither history book, nor memoir, though both history and personal recollection are central to its exposition. It is, instead, analysis. The memories are used illustratively to underline the various parts of the thesis. They are thrown into the mixture with no care for geography or chronology, except where a development of personal insight over time or between continents is pertinent.

Instead Beaumont orders his thoughts around themes.

He considers how people are shape-shifted: the US soldiers dehumanising the locals by degrading the respectful Hajji into a term of abuse; the drug-addled children taking anti-psychotics to remove their fear; the journalists whose sense of perspective or of morality slowly becomes skewed by fear, by immunisation, by increased sensitisation.

He investigates how 'hate' embeds itself in the psyche of the very young and war becomes interminable as a result. Are the Palestinian children throwing pipe bombs ineffectually over the wall any different to the Irish kids who threw stones at British soldiers (in anything other than the fact that the retaliation is somewhat extreme in its disproportion)? How do you cut through the 'institution' of identities that don't allow for accommodation?

Examination of exactly what a bullet does when it enters the human body gives rise to succinct description of what conflict does to a community, pulling all manner of detritus in after the assault, poisoning everything around it.

He talks to parents trying to educate children who have their own ideology.

Ideology. Terrorism. How the one gives rise to the other. How the very word "terrorism" has been coerced into false meaning, meaning simply attacks by the other side. Until we reclaim this word, he suggests, until we are prepared to accept that not only lone suicide bombers commit acts of terror (terrorism) but so do governments, until we are prepared to recognise that "asymmetric war" might just amount to terrorism almost by definition, until we are prepare to look at the function and effects of conflict, scientifically, in isolation from the politics of a particular conflict, we stand little chance of resolving any of the situations we are so very good at creating.

Beaumont has made a start. He has addressed his themes by observation in the field, but he has also come home and sought scientific explanation for what he has seen. He presents evidence for the chemical effects of Artane and the paradoxical response in children. He talks to a psychotherapist about his own reactions (or lack of them) to what he has seen. He has checked out the research on prolonged exposure to stress, studied the kinetic theory of refugee movements, pondered the pathology of ballistic, blast and burn injuries, among many other background investigations.

Through it all the personal remains at the fore. Soldiers are allowed to be afraid. Warriors are allowed to have a point of view. Ideologues and suicide bombers either have a purpose, or maybe have just finally run out of believing they have one. Beaumont doesn't seem to care much about politics and states. He cares about people.

When he remembers death, it is not in fiery inferno of a bomb blast, or the rattling of bullets, it is in the aftermath… the scraping off of brain and blood from walls, and glass fragments and the boots of the survivors. It is horrible rather than horrific. A distinction that matters. War, he never says, but underlines in every other sentence is PERSONAL. Maybe if we got that message, the others would follow.

This is a succinct but authoritative work. More study than memoir. It should be compulsory reading.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: for more tales from the front line, more conventionally told but no less illuminating, try Jeremy Bowen’s War Stories.

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