Joshua Hersh, The Huffington Post’s Middle East correspondent based in Beirut, has been in Damascus since Saturday. As one of the few American journos on the ground there, he has a front row seat to a tragic piece of history in the making. FishbowlDC was lucky enough to have Josh answer a few questions for us about what it’s like to report from a war zone and what’s he’s learned about the devastating conflict developing in Syria.
Without further ado, The Fishbowl Five with Josh Hersh:
You previously covered foreign affairs out of HuffPo’s DC bureau, now you’re based in Lebanon. What parts of an international story, especially a war story, do reporters miss by not being on the front lines?
The hardest part to recognize is how inconsequential we often are. That’s not totally true of course — decisions made in Washington and New York play a major role in the course of events all over the world. But even though the people of the Middle East may talk about us a lot over coffee and a cigarette, they don’t really care about us all that much — and they certainly don’t care about the same things we do. There’s a tendency in political discourse in the west — especially on TV, or the halls of Congress — to think what we do and say matters more than it really does. Learning to disentangle our political debates about foreign policy (should Obama intervene in Syria, should there be a total troop draw-down in Afghanistan, etc) from the substantive questions of what’s really going on out in those countries is both instructive and liberating.
It’s also useful to recognize how little people in the world fully comprehend about our politics. Things we see as key distinctions — even something as broad as the fact that the president makes foreign policy, and congress mainly just pontificates about it; or that one party is in control of the White House and the other is not — are often lost on other countries. (And it’s not about intelligence: Next time you read a quote from a political leader in Iran about bombing Israel, for instance, think about whether you really know whether he’s in the part of Iran’s government that actually controls nuclear policy, or just the part that complains about it.)
Much more with Josh Hersh after the jump.
What sort of security precautions do you take when you go out in the field?
Most of security takes place before you set out, and it begins with a clear-eyed assessment of how much security you need. The truth is, security is cumbersome — be it body armor or a bodyguard — and there is always a tradeoff between flexibility (and the comfort of people you might be interviewing), and safety. I never skimp on safety — nor, in all honestly, do any of the legitimate journalists who work in dangerous places — but I prefer to be in environments where I can work comfortably; I find that suits my style of reporting more than the dare-devil stuff. So if I think a place I’m going might require body armor, I might think twice about whether it’s somewhere I really want to be — or really need to be.
But the bottom line is that safety — common sense, above all — is the most important thing. As a great photojournalist once told me, Getting the story is only half of the job; getting it out safely is the other. If you don’t do the second part, no matter how brave you were on the way in, you have failed to do your job. I’m also grateful to the RISC Training program, started by the journalist Sebastian Junger, for providing a free course for freelancers in conflict and combat medicine.
One other thing: I should be clear that I am in Syria on a visa from the government. I do not recommend anyone enter this country illegally — it is extremely dangerous for any journalist to do so.
What one character trait do you think is essential for covering war zones and conflict areas?
This one is easy: patience. Everything takes longer than it should, and everything is more complicated than it needs to be. But patience is good: it keeps you safe, and it makes your work better.
That, and a high capacity for a constant intake of coffee and tea.
Many people in America and across the world assume the situation in Syria is hopeless. Is it?
It’s hard not to feel hopeless. Having reported from both sides, I think I can say with confidence that neither has a lot of tolerance for the views (or legitimacy) of the other, and that doesn’t leave much room to work with. But the Syrian people are vibrant and smart and sophisticated, and they are all fully conscious of the direction their country is headed (or has already gone). I don’t doubt that to the extent there are ways to solve the extraordinary divide here, they are looking for them, and will find them.
What one thing does the general public not understand about the situation in Syria that you wish they did?
Mainly this: there are no quick fixes. I strongly believe this, even if it disappoints people in the U.S. who would like to think that there is something the West can do, or could have done, that would move this situation quickly toward peace. Could the West, or, more specifically Obama, have intervened in a way that would change the course of the conflict? Of course. But solve it? I’m not so sure. That’s a disappointing lesson in the limits of American power, but I suppose it’s one we learned in Iraq and Afghanistan (and Libya and Latin America and Vietnam, etc, etc), and it’s one worth keeping in mind.