The Things I Carried Back
By JOHN F. BURNSAPRIL 11, 2015
John Fischer Burns, senior New York Times correspondent, in Baghdad in 2003. CreditAshley Gilbertson for The New York Times Continue reading the main story
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CAMBRIDGE, England — THE light was fading on the hills above the Arno, and my closest friend in the careworn ranks of foreign correspondents was sitting cross-legged on a canopied Chinese daybed, in a lovely old tree-shaded house in his native village, a brisk walk from the heart of Florence.
His name was Tiziano Terzani, one of Italy’s most celebrated writers, and on that weekend, a decade ago, he was host with his wife, Angela, for the marriage of their daughter in a soaring renaissance basilica in Florence.
At 65, Tiziano was in the final weeks of a terminal cancer, and he used a languid lunch the day after the wedding to offer, from his place on the daybed, a personal farewell, along with some gentle wisdom he’d accrued in 40 years as a roaming reporter for the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel and leading Italian newspapers and as the author of a library of deeply engaging books of adventure and reflection.
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“Never forget,” he told the rapt gathering of musicians, physicians, politicians, entrepreneurs, writers, diplomats and reporters. “It’s not how far you’ve traveled, it’s what you’ve brought back.”
If I have been remembering Tiziano with a special fondness in recent days, it is because I, too, have reached the 40-year milestone in my career at The New York Times, and formally retired last week, six months past my 70th birthday.
Our careers, Tiziano’s and mine, were improbably similar: We spent years shadowing each other in Soviet Russia and the China of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, and chronicling the wars, assassinations and other disasters of India, Pakistan, North Korea, Afghanistan and a host of countries beyond.
We were both imprisoned in China, on charges officials there later acknowledged to have been false, and we both shared, at the same time in the 1990s, the same cancer — non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma — and the same oncologist in New York.
Now the wheel has turned, and the time has come to begin meeting the challenge Tiziano issued on that Florentine afternoon, after some familiar chatter among his guests: how far each of us had traveled, the wonders and miseries we’d chronicled, and the most fascinating, or cruel, dictators and rulers through whose realms we’d passed.
It was a fine thing, Tiziano said, to have accumulated all those visas and passport stamps, all those exotic datelines, all those Saddam Hussein puppets and Little Red Books of Mao’s wisdom, all those richly seasoned tales of derring-do.
But what, please tell, had we brought back?
In my case, poking from the very top of my traveler’s backpack is something you might expect of a reporter who spent long years in what were then some of the nastiest places in the world, each of them fraudulently dressed up, in their enveloping propaganda, as something entirely different, and benign. What those years bred in me, more than anything else, was an abiding revulsion for ideology, in all its guises.
From Soviet Russia to Mao’s China, from the Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban to the repression of apartheid-era South Africa, I learned that there is no limit to the lunacy, malice and suffering that can plague any society with a ruling ideology, and no perfidy that cannot be justified by manipulating the precepts of a Mao or a Marx, a Prophet Muhammad or a Kim Il-sung.
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As Tiziano surely knew, distilling some semblance of enlightenment from a lifetime’s work is not the easiest of challenges, and not only because it supposes the wit to bring order and sense out of years of jumbled, helter-skelter experience — of repression by forces of the left and right, of man’s propensity for cruelty to man, and of the countervailing strains of humanity that endure wherever the worst kinds of malevolence prevail.
There is the fear, too, of indulging in what reporters of my generation have been disciplined to avoid: abandoning the dictates of objective reporting for the hazardous ground of moral presumption, and with it the dreary vales of self-righteousness.
WHAT a reporter carries out grows, inevitably, from the beliefs and standards carried in. For me, those were set out by the Times editor who first assigned me abroad in 1976, A. M. Rosenthal, and by his successors over the years. Abe called for “keeping the paper straight.”
He issued the dictum before my first foreign assignment: apartheid South Africa, a country justly seen as an open-and-shut case of oppression. But even there the need to keep the paper straight demanded, Abe said, that we tell not only the story of the oppressed, but that of all the other major players in South Africa’s tragedy, including the Afrikaner people who built the fortress of racial prejudice that the country had become. Those stories might surprise us, he said, and give us a more textured sense of the truth.
The commitment to fairness and balance, and to shunning conventional truths when our reporting leads us in unexpected directions, has been our gold standard — and one that I, like other reporters, undoubtedly failed on occasions when my passions, and the passions of those around me, ran at their highest.
Those moments, I fear, might have to include for me the hours after American troops overran Baghdad in April 2003. At the time, I witnessed and shared the wild public rapture at Saddam Hussein’s fall, which gave way almost overnight to grim forebodings about the murderous sectarian chaos that was to ensue, and which continues, with a redoubled vengeance, in Tikrit, Mosul, Ramadi and dozens of other Iraqi cities and towns where the Islamic State has held sway.
My impatience with ideology has carried over in recent years to my encounters with the societies in the West that are my home: to the widespread propensity, as I have sensed it, for people who lack the excuse of brutal duress that is a constant in the totalitarian world to fall sway to the formulaic “isms” of left and right, each of them full of Yeats’s “passionate intensity,” that excuse, and indeed smother, free thinking.
The bankruptcy of the approach that divides the world into camps of left and right was a lesson learned early. An assignment to China in the early 1970s exposed me to the murderous doctrines of Mao Zedong “Thought,” with victims that numbered in the millions; and a posting to Moscow in the early 1980s, 30 years after Stalin’s death, was redolent of the miseries that a perverted form of Marxism-Leninism imposed on Soviet Russia, with its own ghastly toll in the millions.
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My five years in South Africa carried their own lessons. The more I saw of the ugliness of apartheid, the more evident it became that the apparatus of right-wing repression — the twisted ideology, the pervasive role of the secret police, the dehumanization of an entire population — was little different from left-wing dictatorships, save in the sheer number of victims.
If ideology was the scourge of the 20th century, so it has continued to be in many of the worst places of the 21st. Perhaps the most murderous of all states in our time is the North Korea of the Kim family, with millions dead from hunger and the deprivations of vast, hidden prison camps. And the beheadings, mass shootings and burnings-alive committed by the Islamic State have their origins in yet another kind of corrupted, extremist thought.
In all of these places, my experience has been that when it suits the ends of power, ideology can be invoked to prove that 2+2 = 5, or 3, or any other number that suits the state, and to demand that all embrace the madness. It is a truly frightening thing to interview a top-ranked nuclear scientist, or a distinguished brain surgeon, or a concert pianist, as I did in China under the sway of Mao, and to hear them, as ideological outcasts, justify with utter conviction the brutalities inflicted on them by their ideology-crazed persecutors — crushed fingers, smashed heads, broken marriages, vilification by their own families.
Elsewhere, the lunacy was of an order that invited a response of laughing mockery, if that were not potentially fatal to the system’s loyalists, or those pretending to be so. In North Korea, while Kim Il-sung was still alive, there was a brand new, high-tech hospital built in his name in Pyongyang, floor after floor laden with tens of millions of dollars in the latest American, Swiss and German equipment, but no patients to be seen. And why not? “As we have explained,” the most senior comrade-physician responded, “the Korean people’s great leader Comrade Kim Il-sung has taken such care for the health of his beloved people that none of his people gets sick.”
Not ever? “No, never,” was the reply.
My catalog of such moments in the grim dictatorships of the world could fill a book, or three. But coming home to the countries of the West, where nobody dies for a moment’s lapse in fealty to a prime minister or a president, it can be depressing beyond words to hear the loyalists of a given political creed — whether of the left or the right — adopt the unyielding certainties common in totalitarian states. Our rights to think and speak freely have been won at great cost, and we abuse them at our peril.
John F. Burns is a Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent whose postings over four decades included Bosnia, Afghanistan, Russia, China, Iraq and South Africa.
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