By Leah Hansen
I have just finished asking journalist Graeme Smith whether embedding with the military to report war causes any kind of bias. What follows is a laugh and a lot of cursing.
“I’ve answered this question a thousand fucking times over the course of the last five or six years,” says Smith, Ryerson alumnus and former Eyeopener editor, still chuckling. He says something about hunting down the particular J-school prof who led us towards this particular misconception (profuse profanity omitted here).
“Embedding is a crucial part of covering a war because you have to get close to all sides of a conflict. It also allows you to physically reach places you couldn’t otherwise reach,” Smith says. “There were parts of Afghanistan I couldn’t get to unless I was on a military helicopter and traveling with the troops.”
Few people know the difficulties and challenges of reporting in a war zone better than Smith, author of The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan, a book about his experience reporting in southern Afghanistan. He came to Ryerson campus on Tuesday, Oct. 1, to speak about his work, which was recently shortlisted for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction.
The Dogs Are Eating Them Now is part factual narrative, part critique of the results of the Afghan war. “We lost the war in southern Afghanistan and it broke my heart,” Smith writes in the book’s first paragraph. Peace and stability, both prominent themes of the war rhetoric at the time, are still rarely found in Afghanistan, he writes.
Though he’s spent his fair share of time reporting from an armoured vehicle overseas, Smith’s career began in the small, cramped basement space of The Eyeopener office (formerly located in the basement of Jorgenson Hall). Smith entered the journalism program in 1997, but didn’t graduate four years later— he was missing one English credit (he would return in 2009 to complete his degree). However, class paled in comparison to what The Eyeopener offered him, he says, which was real world experience.
“The Eyeopener gave me a chance to get my hands dirty and do journalism. My time was probably better spent at the paper instead of in class — as much as they’ll hate to hear that at Ryerson,” Smith says. “Journalism is something you learn on the run, for the most part.”
Smith’s stint as an editor at The Eyeopener led to summer internships at both The Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail, where he would eventually be hired. His second day on the job happened to be Sept. 11, 2001 — no wonder Smith has an affinity for real world experience and on-the-job learning. After several overseas postings with the Globe, Smith ended up in southern Afghanistan covering the war effort.
“The experience in Afghanistan was punishing and rewarding,” Smith says. “And it felt like a good place to be because I felt like I was at the fault line of something, like the tectonic plates of geopolitics were crashing into each other at that particular place at that particular time.”
Personal safety and the sheer number of newsworthy events posed challenges for Smith. Embedding with the military offered valuable protection, but in order to talk to locals — and even Taliban commanders — Smith donned traditional garb and left the military base daily. While there was no shortage of stories to cover, a lack of journalists to cover them made deciding what got priority a constant challenge.
“You end up in the same position as an overburdened intake nurse in an emergency ward with not enough doctors on staff,” Smith said. “You’re working with your gut in many ways, trying to guess what’s important and you sometimes end up wasting time.”
Smith still regrets the stories that slipped through the cracks, he says, adding that rumours of civilian massacres and other stories that couldn’t be corroborated were tough to handle.
In the final weeks of April and the beginning of May 2007, Smith wrote a series of articles about the condition of detainees handed over to Afghan forces by Canadians who had captured them. In many cases, detainees were being tortured regularly, Smith found.
“It caused a bit of a stir in Ottawa,” Smith said. “For a couple of weeks, it was the lead issue, the lead question in question period in parliament.” After weeks of debate, Canada signed a new bilateral agreement with the Afghan government, calling for better monitoring of detainees in Afghan prisons.
“It’s nice when your journalism highlights a problem and then results in action trying to fix it,” Smith said, adding that this particular victory was a small one. Subsequent investigations by the United Nations in recent years have continued to turn up evidence of torture.
Smith now works with the International Crisis Group, which focuses on finding workable solutions for the southern regions of Afghanistan, an area still devastated by the war. The first step to repairing the damage would be simple discussion and an admission that, in large part, the goals of the war were not achieved, Smith said.
Despite rising levels of violence since the withdrawal of troops, Smith still resides in Afghanistan and has no plans to leave. During our conversation, he’s repeated several times that walking away from the war under the misconception of success is not the answer. He seems to practice what he preaches.
“I have no idea what I want to do when I grow up,” Smith says, laughing. He’s 34. “I’d like to stay in Afghanistan if I can, because I really love it there. But after that, who knows.”