August 23, 2014
June 9, 2014
Two men in the desert, front of camera: J.F. in a prisoner’s orange overall, head shaved, kneeling, apparently penitent; J.J., knife in (left) hand, face covered, swathed in black from head to….ankle, where Grim Reaper garb gives way to non-apocalyptic desert boots.
How did they get there?
J.F., a 40-year-old, photogenic video-journalist – facial bones like the young Iggy Pop, previously said he was drawn to conflict zones because, unless someone gets up close, ‘we can’t understand the world, essentially’.
In video footage of a Q&A session at his old journalism school (Medill), he does that a lot – that is, he makes a strong statement, then softens the sound of it with an adverb – ‘essentially’; likewise, the ‘prayers and cigarettes, basically’, that got him through a previous period of incarceration (Libya 2011), also in the hands of unreliable captors (teenage Gaddafi loyalists), who shot and killed a South African photographer immediately before taking J.F. into custody.
Describing him as ‘motivated’, J.F.’s father later said of his late son that doing this important job ‘gave him energy’.
During his talk to staff and students at Medill (ignoring the Milky Bar Kid who at the first mention of violence, smirks at the girl in the adjacent seat), J.F. remarks upon the‘reach for humanity’ readily discernible among the people he was reporting on.
He reports being inspired by them, but did they also serve as his surrogates? It is valid to ask whether other people’s war zones (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria) became a theatre of self-validation for J.F. He admits that writing fiction failed to fulfil the romantic idea of himself as a writer (please note, a particular kind of young American invests theword ‘writer’ with a special sort of significance); so he turned to reality rather than questions of realism.
During the BBC Radio 4 Today programme of 6th June 2014, coverage of the seventieth anniversary of the D-Day landings appeared alongside the breaking story of dead babies shoved into the septic tank of a post-war home for fallen women (unmarried mothers) in rural Ireland.
How wide, I wonder, is the
divide between these two sets of
casualties – the
infantile and adolescent? Both of
them ended up in the
slurry, dropped right in it to meet the
requirements of the
time; in accordance with the
orders of the
day.But even as I say this, I know I am slurring my words for polemical effect. Unlike undifferentiated baby waste, leaving no distinction between a child’s body and the
his nappy, the
young soldiers forming the
first wave of
Operation Overlord were always marked out as heroes. Their hero status was as clear as the
cocoa smeared on their faces – not faeces – for night time camouflage.
In the wartime broadcasts of BBC radio reporter Richard Dimbleby, even the waste products of their successful advance were duly honoured. Of the equipment left behind by the first Allied troops to land in Normandy, in his sing-song voice Dimbleby said: ‘Today the gliders and some of the discarded parachutes lie like crumpled flowers inthe wet wooded countryside north east of Caen.’
Catch the cadences in that!
Dimbleby’s prose is as sonorous as Dylan Thomas issuing his order to the wartime generation – ‘do not go gentle into that good night’. Thomas was writing not about thewar but for his dying father. Yet both the poet and the war reporter accorded the same high honour to human life and death.
Theirs is not an empty formality, but the proper use of form – to formulate what we are. As writers ordering experience as best they can, they order their readers and listeners to do the best we can.
Citing ‘parachutes..like crumpled flowers’, Dimbleby was already memorialising, only hours after ‘our airborne troops have successfully completed this, the first of their operations in the new battle of Europe’. Whether or not they lived to tell the tale, he was writing an elegy for this, their bravest action.
Seven decades later, the memories of the old boys who came flooding back to Normandy one last time, must now be imbued not only with the shades of fallen comrades but also with the ghosts of all they have and haven’t done with their lives inthe 70 years since that first landing.
Was D-Day what made them find their feet as grown men, or is it that the ground beneath them never seemed so solid again? Scanned by television cameras, their faces said both these things at the same time.