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From AJR,   February/March 2013  issue

Ignoring a War   

Killing The Cranes: A Reporterís Journey Through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan

By Edward Girardet

Chelsea Green Publishing

418 pages; $19.95

Feb., 27, 2013

By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.


Chances are, most people reading this review can name more reporters who covered Vietnam nearly a half century ago than reporters covering Afghanistan today.

Though some call it America's longest war at 11 years and counting, Afghanistan rarely leads newscasts. It didn't make the Associated Press' top 10 story list last year.

Given its costs, casualties and controversies, you might expect fuller scrutiny and public concern.

But as "Killing the Cranes" underlines, Afghanistan is a case study of two troubling journalistic trends: the alarming rise in the danger of war reporting and the continuing cutback of foreign coverage.

So, beyond its political and economic problems, this war also may supply an early warning sign of what happens to national attention and policymaking when the press curtails coverage of complex issues.

In "Killing the Cranes," first published last year and recently updated and reissued, veteran journalist Edward Girardet details more than 30 years of conflict in a misunderstood, divided country.

His story starts in fall 1979, just weeks before the Soviet Union's disastrous invasion. Girardet, "a restless young journalist in Paris, aching for a good story," wins a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation assignment to Afghanistan.

For the next three decades, often at great risk, he visits and revisits, reporting for National Geographic, the Christian Science Monitor, ABC News and others. He is occasionally arrested and often threatened, once personally by Osama bin Laden ("Who are you and what are you doing in Afghanistan?....If I see you again, I'll kill you. Don't ever come back.").

But his affection for the country grows as he moves among ordinary people and rival commanders, in embattled cities and forsaken combat zones.

The book is full of passages such as, "Suddenly an explosion ripped across the quiet afternoon. 'Down!' I shouted...A land mine...Walk only on the stones.." and "We finally reached the upper reaches of the Panjshir. We had walked over 400 miles, much of it climbing."

Some adventures are weirdly comical. He has to be rescued when a crowd sees him taking notes and mistakes him for Salman Rushdie. He's hauled to the Kabul police station for questioning ó by interrogators simultaneously watching Disney's "The Lion King" on a large-screen TV.

Girardet harshly judges "Western arrogance and ignorance [that] led from one mistake to another." He lambastes CIA decisions to back what he calls Islamic extremists over moderates in the 1980s and later American failures to support anti-Taliban alliances that might have forestalled war.

The U.S., he argues, fatefully overlooked Pakistan's role in enabling the Taliban. "It appears obvious," he writes, "that the events of 9/11 or the current NATO war might have been avoided had Washington taken firm steps against Pakistan for its direct military involvement in Afghanistan."

As for the U.S. war, which began in October 2001, he believes it was "'lost' by 2004 or 2005" and that "the country has descended steadily into chaos and insecurity that is far worse than during the Taliban."

These informed and plausible opinions are reason enough to take "Killing the Cranes" seriously.

But journalists will find another set of lessons.

Girardet's tale makes clear how much more dangerous, and therefore limited, war reporting has become, with reporters now targeted rather than tolerated.

Early on, he regularly "slipped into closed tribal areas for quick 'in and out' sorties..I never felt nervous about roaming the tribal zones."

Now, "reporting with the Taliban and other insurgents..is widely regarded as too dangerous..few Western reporters have taken the risk."

Instead, reporters typically embed with U.S. forces, limiting their contact with ordinary citizens and guerrillas and thus their ability to understand Afghanistan's many divisions and complexities.

All that, coupled with the drop-off in mainstream U.S. reporting resources, helps explain why such a costly, questionable war holds such a thin grip on American consciousness.

Girardet ends on an optimistic hope that Afghans can "find their own way again" and "all live in peace."

But his book offers less reason for optimism about wartime coverage, and perhaps about public service journalism in general. If war itself can fall off our civic radar with the press in retreat, what other vital issues face similar neglect?