In The Operators, a great book on the war in Afghanistan, the American journalist Michael Hastings is scathing of reporters who spend their lives praising generals and socialising with them. Hastings exposed the arrogance and childish antics of the then head of US operations in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, and his team. Barack Obama fired the general, who today runs a management consultancy firm.
After Hastings’s scoop, many mainstream journalists went after him, instead of questioning McChrystal’s credentials. Hastings was attacked for breaking the “gentlemen’s agreement” that existed between reporters and the military. Journalists would receive scoops and access if they played this cosy game.
The New York Times published articles praising McChrystal and urged the president to keep him in his role. Largely ignored was the fact that his aggressive counter-terrorism policies were a key factor in surging violence against civilians and soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Hastings, who died in a car crash in Los Angeles in 2013, was contemptuous of uncritical, embedded journalism that cared little about the lives of Afghans and Iraqis.
Australian war correspondent John Martinkus shares much with Hastings’s worldview. His new book, Lost Copy, is a damning indictment of what we don’t see and hear about the never-ending “war on terror”.
A veteran of conflicts in East Timor and Aceh, Martinkus spent years reporting for SBS’s Dateline. In an introduction, he argues that the positive stories told by journalists about Afghanistan, and Australia’s presence in Helmand and Oruzgan, are fantasy.
“The truth of the situation that governments, militaries and some sections of the press that unquestioningly supported them spent so many years trying to deny has been revealed,” he writes. “But very few are telling that story now.”
Today the Taliban controls more territory than at any time since 2001. This is the reason Donald Trump gives for occupying the country indefinitely, but Martinkus cites historical examples to show how greater use of US drones and CIA covert actions will only inflame the situation. Indefinite war, benefiting arms dealers and private contractors, is the result.
Lost Copy is a lesson in the ugly alliances forged by Washington in its futile attempts to control Afghanistan. Perhaps there’s no better example than Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, backed by the CIA in May 1979. Martinkus calls him a “religious fanatic and heroin trafficker” who, “despite his outspoken and virulent anti-American views, received between a third and a half of all American aid to the [anti-Soviet] rebels, valued at hundreds of millions of dollars”.
In 1992, Hekmatyar’s rebels “laid waste to large parts of Kabul, with rocket attacks being one of his favourite tactics”. A former ally of al-Qa’ida and the Taliban, Hekmatyar is now rebuilding his political career in Kabul.
Martinkus directly links the American indulgence and patronage of individuals such as Hekmatyar to the country’s ongoing chaos. Travelling independently gives him unrivalled access to hidden secrets. He documents cases of American and foreign forces denigrating, destroying, burning or cursing Muslim bodies.
“Somewhere in the US military, people were identifying Islamic, Afghan and Iraqi customs and recommending ways to violate them, with a frequency that was only slowly becoming apparent as occasionally an incident was caught on film or witnessed or photographed.”
Martinkus claims many of these stories never saw the light of day: “Countless more were dismissed on the ground by sceptical and partisan reporters as the complaining of those with an agenda. Others were blocked at an editorial level by a press, in the US, the UK and Australia, that by and large supported both wars [Iraq and Afghanistan].”
The risk of “taking sides” in war reporting is expertly dissected by Martinkus. When he was kidnapped in Baghdad in 2004, across the road from the Australian embassy, he was condemned by then foreign minister Alexander Downer and also by right-wing bloggers. Some even claimed he had faked his ordeal. On his release, Martinkus said he did not support the US occupation of Iraq, which made him a prime target for attack. “To even broach the topic of what was motivating the Iraqi insurgents,’’ he writes, “was enough to bring down a wave of condemnation for being seemingly sympathetic with terrorists.”
Lost Copy is a fine example of war reportage, sceptical of official claims and committed to honest journalism. Martinkus provides inspiration to the next generation of reporters who want to move past the military PR to document the endless wars consuming the Middle East and Africa.
Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist. He will be at the Sydney Writers Festival, April 30 to May 6. swf.org.au
Lost Copy: The Endless Wars: Iraq and Afghanistan
By John Martinkus
Australian Scholarly Publishing, 272pp, $39.95