Chivers touches on doubt for an end to war and lessons learnt overseas
Having started his career as a U.S. Marine Corps officer in the Middle East, New York Times war correspondent C.J. Chivers was somewhat ready to work in war-torn areas. While he was physically prepared, he struggled mentally with being in such treacherous settings. Chivers visited Concordia on Jan. 20 for a talk hosted by the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies to explain his involvement reporting in the Middle East and Moscow. The Concordian spoke to Chivers one-on-one about his struggles and insight as a reporter overseas.
The Concordian: You expressed gratefulness towards locals. However, I’m sure not everyone was quite trustworthy. What were some of the precautions you took as a journalist for your wellbeing?
C.J. Chivers: When working with local drivers, translators and commanders? Well, there comes a point where, particularly early on, when you are first with someone to some degree it’s an act of faith. But after you have worked with people for a little while you figure out who you can rely on and who you cannot rely on. Many of those relationships don’t in fact work out. If you’re in an area for a long time you end up with a good crew, but that doesn’t happen automatically. There have certainly been people we have had to let go. But that’s not just true of local people, that’s true frankly of Westerners, as well. We’ve gone through a number of security contractors because of reliability issues.
TC: Did you ever have a moment where you had a gut feeling a person or situation was bad? Did you listen to your instinct or if your opinions were altered by advice from someone else?
Chivers: It’s usually either a gut feeling or something clear and obvious that you’ve experienced and seen firsthand with a person that causes the relationship to end. But gut feelings are worth listening to.
TC: It can be easy to focus on negativity in these countries, but were there any stories you would like to share or things you noticed towards social or economic development?
Chivers: You see positive things often in bad environments. In war, it’s an invariably bad environment and things, in my experience, tend to be getting worse not better. But against that, you do see great acts of kindness, decency, selflessness and self-sacrifice. So there is goodness out there for sure. We write about it from time to time as it occurs and when it’s newsworthy, but generally in my experience in war zones you see much more bad than good. If it feels like the focus is negative, that’s because generally the activity is negative.
TC: Were there any kind of specific circumstances you endured that altered the way you think personally as journalist and as a regular person?
Chivers: Well sure, I think the whole experience changes you in many ways. There’s individual experiences and then there’s the experiences collectively. I have a lot less faith in institutions. I have great faith in people, but I have a lot less faith in institutions than I did as a younger person. That’s certainly a result of covering institutions that routinely fail.
TC: Was there a specific occurrence that lead you to feel that way?
Chivers: I would say that it happens to often that I’ve seen institutions fail and seen it first hand and seen it clearly and then see those institutions lie or try to wiggle out of responsibility or accepting their failure. This isn’t just military institutions or government institutions, it’s not just the United Nations, but it’s news organizations and human rights organizations. I have often seen them fail one way or another and I’ve learned to put my trust in people. In small groups of people, much more than institutions.
TC: Is there any advice you would possibly give to someone who is interested in working in dangerous areas, such as the ones you have been to?
Chivers: Think carefully about it. Not just before you do it, but while you do it. You have to do the journalism. No matter what your beat is, the journalistic requirements are the same. You have to find sources for information, verify information, gather information, verify information, analyze information and come up with something you’re going to be presenting as your news. But working in dangerous environments and working in environments where your presence and your activity can jeopardize other people and will jeopardize other people, you also have to have a large portion of your mental and emotional bandwidth going to safety. The safety of you and the safety of others. So my advice is to think about safety. Not just yours, but your sources, your drivers, translators, everybody around you. Think about it all the time, constantly. Develop work habits that help manage your activities in ways that they are less dangerous. That doesn’t mean avoiding danger, you may have to go to very dangerous places. But there is always ways to try to manage the risk down even when you are doing exceptionally dangerous things.
TC: For different situations, did you always have a backup or escape plan in case any danger arise?
Chivers: That’s part of it, thinking through and forming contingencies for almost everything that can go wrong. Try to imagine and anticipate everything that can go wrong, then try to prevent it from going wrong and have a set of plans or the equipment or the supported place, so that if it does go wrong you have a good chance of coming through safely. You, everyone with you and everyone around you that you are endangering by your presence. It’s exhausting to think about all of these things thoroughly and continuously, but you really have an ethical responsibility to do exactly that. You’ve got to show up with the skills, habits and ethics of a journalist. But then you need this whole other body of skills, habits and ethics that you need to be applying to your work, as well.
TC: How did you mentally and physically prepare for working in these areas?
Chivers: I’m actually in somewhat an unusual case at the large, my background in the marine corps infantry. And physically, I lived an odd life over these past years. I stopped drinking entirely and there was a period where I was doing this intensively and also putting myself through intense physical conditioning at that time. To the point that some people would think it’s odd, but I knew exactly what my reporting partner weighed with his equipment and I used to train with his body weight in the weight room so that I could move that weight quickly and intensely. Those preparations I think are on many levels a matter of ethics if you’re going to be doing front-line stuff. It’s not supposed to be an adventure, you’re actually supposed to try to take a lot of the adventure and risk out of it while working in these very dangerous environments. One of the ways you do that is by being in shape and by being sober.
TC: Did you ever contact other journalists prior to beginning work in these areas?
Chivers: No, I don’t thinks so. I had done a lifelong study of war and weapons, so by the time I became a journalist I was already 30 years old. I had some familiarity with these things. Once I started doing it, socially you have a lot of those conversations with people you meet here and there. But I didn’t seek out advanced council of other journalists, no.
TC: How would you describe your adjustment when you first began working in areas of war?
Chivers: I’m not sure I remember it. I have trouble accessing when I was different than I am now. In part because I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about myself and how I was doing. I actually in some ways deliberately shut that portion of myself off and compartmentalized it away. So that I would have the mental space to work and focus on my work. Maybe that’s an adjustment onto itself though, right?
TC: What inspired you to first do work in these areas?
Chivers: I remember reading a story, I was probably already going in this direction, but I remember reading a story in The New Yorker called the “Massacre of El Mozote” and I thought it was a triumph in fact gathering and analysis and in storytelling and in rendering history of something awful. I thought it was the kind of work that gave power to the skills of journalism and that needed to be understood. That was one of the pieces that perhaps influenced me the most, but I was probably already heading in this directions, that perhaps set the standard that I would hope one day I might be able to reach. If I recall it was close to an entire issue of The New Yorker around ‘93 or ‘94.
TC: Did you have any way you would deal with stress on the job or just push forward?
Chivers: You can get lost in the works of sometimes the way to deal with being overwhelmed. Is to give yourself something hard to do or an other assignment. To sit down and research something or chance down a set of facts or write something. You tend to mask it through keeping busy or I did, I can’t speak for what others do.
TC: When you were at Concordia you mentioned you were not hopeful the war would end. Is there any key elements you noticed in your time overseas that helped you understand how these wars could be resolved?
Chivers: I don’t think these wars will end anytime soon. ISIS may lose territory militarily, but it will persist as a terrorist entity even if it does. I think having seen so many different would-be solutions and so many different ideas so many different military campaigns, all not achieved their desired effects. All not lead to anything that feels long standing, much less permanent has convinced me that the problems are more complex than the policies applied to them and will continue something like indefinitely.
TC: Was there any specific human rights organizations that were very good in helping out in those countries?
Chivers: There are some researchers out there who I think do tremendous in valuable work like Donatella Rovera at Amnesty and Anna Neistat formerly of Human Rights Watch, now also at Amnesty. These are people who push forward and do invaluable first hand research and sound analysis and bring smart public awareness to the problems.
TC: Is there any part of you that wants and thinks you may return to working in the Middle East, Russia or any areas such as that?
Chivers: I will be returning to the Middle East and elsewhere. But I will not be doing the work that I did for years, because my family can’t take it.
TC: Are there any projects you were interested in doing that weren’t affiliated with war?
Chivers: Sure, it’s a constant struggle to try to get to do them, because like a lot of people i’ve been typecast and I’m a little bit stuck.