War Stories


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In James Meek’s new novel We Are Now Beginning Our Descent, the war reporter Kellas returns to the U.K. from Afghanistan and has a few problems readjusting. At an awkward dinner party that includes his neo-con ex-girlfriend (“I couldn’t help it. The right-wing ones are so dirty”), the host makes the mistake of asking what a real war zone is like.

First, his plate. He picked it up, raised it to shoulder level and dropped it onto the slate floor, where it broke into several pieces, which went skittering over the tiles. He grabbed the plates in front of Sophie and Cunnery, put them together, and hurled them onto the floor, harder this time. The wineglasses! They went with a sweep of his forearm and in what must have been a very short time his feet stood in the kind of crunchiness that occurs after an explosion or accident. The people around him were engaged in forms of recoiling and retreating, but their voices were beginning to be loud. Kellas took the vase off the mantelpiece, threw the flowers away and smashed it on the fireplace. One of the fragments somehow ricocheted off the floor and stroked his left arm. It was a comforting feeling, but it may have caused him to bleed.

Kevin Myers also wants to set the record straight about life in a war zone. With his memoir Watching the Door: Cheating Death in 1970s Belfast, Myers remembers his life in Northern Ireland during the peak of the violence. He was hired as a Belfast correspondent for RTÉ broadcasting in Dublin, despite having no experience, no educational background on the region, and no skills. He refers to his appointment as “serendipitous.” Not in the cheerful, romantic comedy sense of the word, but rather in the way the Fates occasionally toy with you.

He arrives in Belfast with a vague Marxist revolutionary spirit, an English accent, and a Catholic name. These last two gifts gave him access to both sides — perhaps too much access. He is asked to help arrange a meeting between the IRA and the UDA because of the ease with which he is able to navigate both territories, and he is nearly assassinated for his trouble. Myers seems to be ruled by that serendipity, wandering into bizarre situations on a regular basis and somehow making his way out again when anyone else would have been killed. By the conclusion of the book, he has witnessed eight people killed right in front of him, survived multiple assassination attempts, and attended the funerals of 40 people, including a girlfriend’s brother; his landlord; and countless friends, drinking buddies, and neighbors. He is nearly shot dead at a checkpoint when his car backfires. Yet still he survives, against all probability, thanks to the strangest of circumstances.

One night at the Club Bar, a drunk accosted Myers on his way to the toilet: “I hear you got Ann Shelton pregnant.” Because Myers stopped to ask what he was talking about, he was able to walk away from a bomb left in the men’s room that exploded 15 seconds later. The very next week, Myers is stunned to learn that the Black Widow, once married to a top level man in the IRA, wanted him dead : “I even thought they liked me.” He escapes from the pub only because his date jams her high heel into a gate, trapping their would-be assassins behind them.

Watching the Door is a memoir, not a history book, and I found myself reaching for Henry Patterson’s Ireland Since 1939: The Persistence of Conflict more and more to fill in some of the gaps. Myers gives a personal take, not just in regards to his own misadventures, but on how the pressure of tribalism and oppression by an outside government can force educated, peaceful people to take up arms. Patterson, meanwhile, lays the groundwork by explaining how political gerrymandering and unfair economic policies formed throughout the years. Myers is very insistent that the war was being fought over religion, even while some contemporary historians insist the Catholic and Protestant lines are circumstantial. While the Catholic rhetoric was more about a romantic idea of a unified Ireland, the Protestants used prejudicial language toward the Catholics. Patterson explains why and when the argument turned from economics to religious hatred better than Myers:

At the core of the secular unionist argument had been the economic success of the north-east of Ireland under the Union, symbolized above all by the shipyards, engineering factories and linen mills of Belfast. After 1921 secular unionism went into recession as depressed economic conditions challenged the Unionist Party’s ability to contain the force of plebian Protestant discontent within its ranks, and this was a major factor in encouraging the stridently anti-Catholic rhetoric that disfigured the speeches of leading unionist politicians in the 1930s.

After 350-some pages of language like that, it’s a relief to come back to Myers’s white-knuckled prose.

Myers has little tolerance for any religious talk at all, and he rails against the preacher who convinced his dying friend that the cancer killing him was caused by his sinful nature, and that now that he has repented God will heal him. He is drawn in by the more charismatic of the leaders on both sides, happy to drink and talk with them. What he cannot stand, however, are those who are drawn into the delusion that the conflict is somehow romantic or holy. One Republican, a man named Frankie Cards who gaelicized his name into Proinsias Mac Airt, was a Catholic bachelor, twisted into a worshiper of violence. “In a sane society this lunatic muttering morbidly into a few cooling cinders would not have been taken as anything other than a candidate for special care: in the asylum of Northern Ireland he was being hailed as a prophet.”

Given what Myers survived, it’s strange, then, that in his present life as a journalist and a columnist, he has no qualms about supporting the invasion of Iraq. It is, of course, nearly impossible to read any book about war without drawing parallels to the current war in Iraq. What comes through in both Watching the Door and Ireland Since 1939 is the absolute incompetence of the British government in handling sectarian violence. They seemed to understand nothing about how tribalism can override the personal, and every action they took in Northern Ireland only fanned the flames. Rather like American and British politicians today who don’t know the difference between Sunni and Shiite, or neglect to hire Arabic translators. Gareth Peirce — an attorney who handled the cases of Irish men and women accused of involvement with terrorism and now represents Muslims in similar circumstances — wrote in the April 10, 2008, issue of The London Review of Books:

Over the years of the conflict, every lawless action on the part of the British state provoked a similar reaction: internment, “shoot to kill,” the use of torture (hoodings, extreme stress positions, mock executions), brutally obtained false confessions and fabricated evidence… Just as Irish men and women, wherever they lived, knew every detail of each injustice as if it had been done to them, long before British men and women were even aware that entire Irish families had been wrongly imprisoned in their country for decades, so Muslim men and women here and across the world are registering their ill-treatment of their community here, and recognizing, too, the analogies with the experiences of the Irish.

When you remember what a relatively short period of time there has been peace in Ireland, thinking about what examining Guantanamo means for the war on terror fills you with dread. Or, as Myers himself puts it, “The road to war is paved with many materials, but surely one of the most important is stupidity.”

Myers’ story ends as he leaves Belfast after six years, so the reader does not watch as he tries to readjust. He only hints at how a person goes from being surrounded by so much death to building a normal life that is not ruled by violence. “[A]fter a couple years living in Dublin I actually found myself able to sit in a pub with my back to the door, without fear of a spray job.” Watching the Door is soaked with survivor guilt; he had the information to save a handful of lives, and even though he knows he would have been killed had he talked, he still cannot help but blame himself for their deaths. This is memoir as exorcism, and it’s a beautiful, brutal piece of work. • 18 June 2008