Dialogue on Reporting and El Mozote
Mark Danner with Agnieszka Wojcinska, Warsaw
May 24, 2014
Wojcinska: So I think, because when I was reading the book there was a lot of moments that really moved me, but when you read this list, which is in Polish, additionally it is 34 pages, and it’s these hundred people in El Mozote, and these hundred in La Joya and so on and so on, and a lot of mother, father, yes, and just child eight years old, eight months old, something that is, it’s really touching, and you feel something like your heart is stopping for a moment when you read this. And my question is when you saw this list first, what was your thoughts about it, the list?
Danner: My thoughts about it and what?
Wojcinska: About the list. Because you must have saw the list.
Danner: Yes, I saw the list. That particular list of the dead who were killed at El Mozote and the surrounding hamlets I saw relatively late in my reporting, so at that point I had already put together the story of what had happened at El Mozote. I had already interviewed Rufina Amaya, the sole adult survivor, and I already knew a lot about the massacre and how it had happened.
Most of all, I had already seen the grave exhumed, which is the opening scene of the book, when the little bundles are taken out of the grave, which are the bodies of children, so the list didn’t have quite the same effect on me as it did on you simply because I was very familiar with what had happened. But it did move me, seeing those names, and it moved me enough to insist that it be included in the book version of what I wrote, because it seemed to me important that the people be listed, and also that readers could see that not only people with names were part of that massacre.
Because they were very small children and because the survivors were so few, many of the victims have to remain nameless, because not enough people remember that they existed, but they don’t necessarily remember what their names were, particularly the children. If I republished the book today, the list would be different because more names have been accumulated, and I would update it.
Wojcinska: [Unintelligible], yeah?
Danner: Yeah, some…you’ve gotten more of the names, it’s been…I mean, the list is a living, changing thing because it depends on people’s memories, it depends on further exhumations at the site. The El Mozote story continues. It’s an ongoing story. It looks like there’s going to be another investigation into El Mozote by the International Human Rights Committee, so the story isn’t ended. And my book is simply an account of what happened, what we know.
Wojcinska: So you said that the list wasn’t the beginning of your work, so what was? What was the starting point?
Danner: Well, the original…the obvious formal starting point was the assignment by the editor of the New Yorker at the time, Tina Brown, to go to El Salvador and cover the exhumation of the site at El Mozote, which was ongoing, and had been ordered by the United Nations as part of the agreements to end the war in Salvador. So that was the formal starting point.
But in fact I, as a young editor, had followed what happened in El Mozote very closely. I was working, at the time, at the New York Review of Books. I was just a couple of months out of college. Part of my job was to send materials about the Salvador war to some of the New York Review writers who were working on it, and those included Joan Didion, who did a series of pieces for the New York Review about the Salvador war that was later published as her book Salvador, and also sending materials to James Chase, who also was publishing a book about the wars in Central America.
So I was very involved—I also, as a student, in my senior year, did a very large paper about the Salvador war as an undergraduate at Harvard for Stanley Hoffman’s class on international relations, so I’d had a close interest in what was happening in Salvador since I was 20 or 19. So to describe the starting point, there’s the formal starting point, which was the commission by Tina Brown to go and write about it, but before that there was an earlier starting point where I was simply interested in the Salvador war and followed it from the beginning.
Wojcinska: What do you remember in the American press reporting this whole thing, the war, the murdering activists at this time?
Danner: It was very complicated and controversial. The dirty war that you mention is the key point, la guerra sucia. A dirty war like the dirty war in Argentina, like the dirty war, in a different way, in Chile and Uruguay, the dirty war in Salvador, like those other wars, was an unofficial war going on under the surface. And when I say unofficial, I mean it wasn’t admitted to by the government of Salvador or by the government of the United States that was its main ally and supporter.
That doesn’t mean that people didn’t know about it. People knew about it very much. They knew that each night squads of Treasury police, squads of soldiers, squads of intelligence officers, very often in civilian clothes, would drive to certain private houses, break in the door, seize civilians, political figures, union figures, teachers, anyone even vaguely associated with the left. They didn’t necessarily have to have strong personal involvement, they just needed to appear on a list.
Wojcinska: Like these girls, yeah, in jeans and sneakers.
Danner: Exactly, who I mention—indeed, I mention in the book, an occasion in which… I mean, every morning, I should say, corpses were found around San Salvador, the capital, lying on the street, lying in various well known dumping grounds. Many of these corpses showed signs of terrible torture—their faces were burned with acid, parts of their flesh were gone, their genitals had been cut off sometimes, they’d been raped—and those corpses were distributed on the street as warnings, really, as terror, to cause terror among the population.
And the specific occasion you mention was one in which a pile of bodies of women were found near the national stadium, and those bodies seemed to have in common only the fact that they were all wearing jeans, and many of them were wearing tennis shoes. And an intelligence analyst I spoke to, an American expert on the Salvadoran military and the security forces, said that he concluded from this that the Salvadorans had simply run out of specific people and decided to start killing according to profile, and they had decided that the profile of women wearing jeans or women wearing tennis shoes would identify leftists. So this is a description of the kind of killing that you saw that was going on every night.
And there were obviously torture chambers that were secret, but people knew about them. So this war was going on, and people knew that the government was doing it. This wasn’t the guerillas, this was the Treasury police, this was military intelligence, this was very well known agencies of the Salvadoran government that the United States, with its foreign aid, was supporting.
But the pretense was maintained publicly by the U.S. that it was not known who was doing these killings, that this was a mystery. We don’t know. Are the guerillas doing it? Is the government doing it? We have no idea. This was completely false, of course. They knew perfectly well who was doing it. And actually, in the aftermath of my book, the U.S. State Department issued a report in which they admitted that they knew who was doing it and that they, in effect, lied repeatedly publicly in denying that they did.
Wojcinska: It was [there] in the American press?
Danner: Yes, it was present. It was present. The American press was reporting these killings, but the American government was denying that the Salvadoran government had anything to do with it. And as long as the American government denies it officially, that obligates journalists to write in their pieces that it’s widely believed that the Salvadoran government is doing this; the American government, however, strongly denies that there is any proof that this is going on, so it adds an element of deniability and uncertainty to what’s happening, even though reporters on the scene were absolutely aware that there was no uncertainty. Just as embassy officials were absolutely aware who was doing this.
So it lent—I mean, you know, there’s similar policy today when it comes to drone attacks by the United States. The U.S. denies that a certain drone attack—it officially denies that it was a U.S. action, but everyone knows that it was a U.S. action. So they have deniability. It’s a kind of public secrecy that I think is very abusive of the public trust, but it continually happens. So at the time there was a great deal of lies surrounding American policy in El Salvador, even though those in the know, those who actually were studying it and knew what was going on, knew very well what was happening.
Wojcinska: You went to Salvador after Tina Brown asked, yeah, and you started to…you go down with this anthropologist, with this commission?
Danner: No, I didn’t go with the anthropologist. I went and reported from the capital. I eventually went to the site of the exhumation and the anthropologists were exhuming the site.
Wojcinska: And you started to gain materials, yes, about that. What was this like, point by point, getting the materials and the whole facts together and choosing which version is correct, or close correct to the truth, how you did it?
Wojcinska: Because it seems like really huge work.
Danner: Yeah. Well, that’s a very broad question, and it’s virtually like asking how did you write this book. And of course one can’t describe how one writes a book in answer to an interview question what you do. I think what I’d say is that it required an awful lot of interviewing and research of various kinds to try to come up with the answer to two basic questions. The first question was what happened. What happened. Who did this, how did they do it, what did certain people do on certain days to kill all these people.
And that’s a very large question because it involves many decision-makers, many officers in the Salvadoran army, soldiers, the people in the town of El Mozote, the people in surrounding towns. It involved understanding what the guerillas were doing, the guerillas of the FMLN, so it required a lot of interviewing of people, many of whom were very difficult to interview, particularly people in the Salvadoran army.
One of the problems in the reporting was I was in Salvador at a very delicate time, when there were a lot of rumors of a military coup, which meant that the military which, in the best of times, is not cooperative with journalists, or wasn’t at that time, was extra uncooperative, and it meant it was very hard to talk to officers who had real knowledge of what had happened at El Mozote, although I succeeded in doing it. But most of them are not named in the book. And of course I’d prefer to have them publicly named.
Wojcinska: Of course.
Danner: Anyway, that was the first question. And that involved also talking to the two survivors, mainly one adult survivor, Rufina Amaya, and interviewing her for five hours or so, because she is, in a sense, the main source of what happened during the massacre itself, although I did succeed I finding someone who had, a peasant who had guided the soldiers.
I found a number of other people who were able to fill in parts of the story that were very important to interview, and I also interviewed a child, Chepe Mozote, who was also a survivor, although his account was harder to authenticate, just because he was very young, and I was less than certain of his memory, frankly. But it is included in the book. So that was the one question, what had happened, and making that comprehensible to a foreign reader.
The second question was why did it happen. And that was an even more difficult task. And though I’m reasonably certain that I answered the first question fairly reliably, the second question is simply harder. And I’m not sure that there is, at the end of the day, a final answer to why all these painting were killed. What I contented myself with in the book was explaining fully the mystery.
And the mystery is, in essence, that before this big operation, this military operation called El Riscate, “the rescue,” of which El Mozote was a part, the guerillas and their supporters, their civilians supporters, fled the area, so the guerilla formations, the FMLN, and the civilians who supported them, all of them left. They went into Honduras. Which means that the civilians who were left were not supporters of the guerillas and generally supported the army and the government, so it remains a mystery why these people were killed in such a vicious way.
And as I say, I don’t know that there is ever going to be a definitive answer to this question. First of all, it’s hard to know whether someone, one certain person gave the order to kill them. It looks like the army in general, at that time, was operating this way, in scorched earth fashion, and that this was at the time of a considerable number of massacres, of which El Mozote was by far the most brutal and the most substantial.
But there was a scorched earth policy on the part of the military. And I think part of this had to do with creating fear in the countryside, letting other civilians know that if they supported the guerillas in any way, they would be killed, and that the military and the Salvadoran government were willing to do anything to win this war. I think that’s part of it, that they simply wanted to make a demonstration of violence.
Part of it also may be attributed to anti-communist ideology within the armed forces, which essentially compared communism to a cancer, and you had to cut it out, you had to destroy it, even down to the children. And many officers, including Major [Caseres], who I write about in the book, were fervent believers of this. So I think there were mixed motives.
A third motive was the fact that there had been a military operation the year before of the Atlacatl Brigade, which was a so-called elite force that did the killing, American trained force, and that earlier military operation had been a defeat for the Atlacatl. And there’s a possibility that it was eager for revenge because this defeat had happened right near El Mozote. So there are several different motives, and as I say, I don’t know that there will ever be a definitive answer to why it happened.
Wojcinska: What do you remember of the making of Rufina Amaya?
Danner: Rufina Amaya was a remarkable woman, I believe in her late 50s when I met her, living in a very small hut, the size of a few meters square, very tiny, who was well known in El Mozote or in the area around El Mozote, because when I did this reporting, El Mozote was a ghost town, no one lived there. But Rufina was well known in the community as the person who survived.
Was it four or five of her children were killed in her earshot. She heard them screaming for her. Including an infant daughter. She was a very forceful personality, very charismatic, very strong woman with great…the Spanish word would be duenda, powerful personality. My task in interviewing her was to try to get by the story she had told before and try to return her to the scene, that is, to try to get her to tell me not a recitation of the story that she had told, but to bring her back, bring her memories back, her mind back to the actual events.
Wojcinska: And how did you do it?
Danner: I did it by asking her extremely specific questions.
Danner: Well, she saw her husband beheaded. Her husband was killed with a machete. They cut his head off. And she saw it from the window of the little hut she was being kept in, where she was imprisoned with the other mothers and children. And so I asked her tell me how exactly that happened—did the soldier grab his hair, did he make him kneel down? What was your husband wearing? What did he say? Did he yell? Did he say anything?
I asked were there pools of blood on the ground, were things burning. I tried to get her to describe, in very specific terms, what things were like, and to get her past to sort of punch through this story that she had told, which was a kind of mask over the actual events in her mind. Punch through it and return to those events.
And it was a very painstaking and very painful process. Eventually she started weeping very hard. My translator, because I was carrying out this interview in [Nahuatl], which is an Indian language, not in Spanish, the translator became angry with me and felt I was being cruel and I shouldn’t continue to do this.
But I was very aware that this interview, for the purposes of recounting the real story of what had happened, was absolutely crucial, because hers was, when it came to the actual massacre, the actual events, hers was by far the most important account because it was the only account from the middle of the scene. Even Chepe Mozote, the young man who I eventually found—it was very hard to find him, but I eventually located him—even he was on the outskirts of the town and simply saw, by his account, the killing of a number of children before he escaped. But Rufina actually saw the events from the beginning until almost the end.
So this was a very painful process that led to a lot of weeping, a lot of emotion, a lot of anguish on her part. And it was painful for me, too, because it felt…I felt that I was causing her to go through pain. But on the other hand, she was, as I say, essential to telling the story.
It’s also true, I should mention, that by her account, when she was hiding in the bushes hearing her children’s screams, she told herself that if God saved her, she would tell the story, that that would be the bargain she made. And so I consoled myself a little with the notion that I was helping her carry out that bargain.
Wojcinska: Do you feel that we journalists have the right to do something like that, to make such people like her go through the trauma again? I think this is kind of open question, yeah, because I don’t know, but how do you feel it?
Danner: I feel that this question is one that’s asked because it’s an attractive question to, you know, self-excoriate one’s self about things, but I actually don’t feel like it’s a very complicated question. I feel it’s a fairly simple question. It depends what you do for a living. If what you do for a living is try to get the definitive story of something like El Mozote, you have to consider that primary. And obviously there are limits. You can’t torture someone to get a story.
But I think that the process I’m describing, while it was painful, was perfectly legitimate. I think that if we hadn’t had that long interview, and probably if she hadn’t cried in that way, the book would not exist. The story as told in the book would not exist. So the question is do you want to tell the story of what happened.
And this was an unusual situation in which there was an absolutely critical version that had to come from her. So while it was painful, I think that it was necessary, and I think…I mean, she’s dead now. She died a couple of years ago. But I think if you asked her this, I suspect—obviously I can’t speak for her—but I suspect she wouldn’t hesitate to say that that interview was worthwhile and she was happy that she gave it. So I don’t feel that that, at the end of the day, is that complicated a question, to tell you the truth.
Wojcinska: Okay, I think for me it’s more complicated because it always comes to mind when you have to speak with someone, yeah? I mostly report on [poor], so I—
Danner: Yes, I don’t mean…
Wojcinska: [I wonder about that.]
Danner: Don’t misunderstand me, please. I don’t mean that it isn’t painful and that it isn’t a matter of judgment. And obviously there are limits. If she had started rolling on the floor and tearing her hair and…
Danner: I mean, clearly there are limits that you’re a human being, you know. But I think to me, though this was a painful process, that interview, I don’t have a moment’s doubt that it was important to do it and that it had to be done, and that that interview with her was absolutely critical to finding out the story. And she wanted to tell the story.
Wojcinska: That’s important.
Danner: I think so, yeah.
Wojcinska: How could you manage your own emotions during such kind of conversation, because I think it’s also quite hard, yeah?
Danner: Well, you know, I’ve reported on a lot of difficult things. I’ve written about massacres in Haiti and many killings in Haiti. I was almost killed there myself. I’ve written about massacres and mass killings in Bosnia and Srebrenica, for example. I’ve described a lot of violence and death during the Iraq war. So all of these things are obviously painful to witness, and can be somewhat traumatic. But the fact is that if this is the job that you’re doing, you have to do it.
I mean, in Sarajevo I witnessed the so-called Market Massacre in February, 1994. I had just interviewed people in the open air market. A few minutes later a mortar shell fell into the market and exploded in a very confined area, not much bigger than this lobby where we’re talking.
And the open air market had a corrugated tin roof, a metal roof, so the mortar shell not only blew up with shrapnel, but it made the tin roof into shrapnel, and it meant that these chunks of metal flew around this confined area and eviscerated people. It killed 68 people by dismembering them, and it wounded many, many more.
And I had just been interviewing these people on an unseasonably warm day in February. People had come out. This was during the siege in ’94. People had come out. Suddenly there was sunshine, so they were trading and trying to buy this pitiful, small amount of things because the city was under blockage, so a single banana that was all blackened, a piece of orange, a screw driver, a screw, all these pitiful, small things that people were shopping for.
I had left the area. I was with a television crew for ABC News. And right afterwards this mortar shell fell. And we came back into the market and it was just chaos. It was just chunks of body everywhere, and pools of blood. I mean, I slipped in the blood. It was like a lake of blood. And many of the people who we had spoken to were in pieces on the ground. And there was no way to count the bodies because there were so many body parts. There was a very heavy smell of cordite from the explosive in the air, so it was a very sickening scene.
And in such a situation…I mean, I also saw a suicide bombing in Iraq, in Baghdad, in October 2003 during the Ramadan Offensive which killed 12 people. I’m trying to say that such scenes are obviously disturbing to any human being. You would be inhuman if you weren’t disturbed by them. But the simple fact is that you’re there to actually do a job, not to be disturbed. You have to be disturbed later.
When you’re there, you have to observe and, in my case, take notes and write down what you see so you won’t forget it. And in the case of Sarajevo, count the bodies to try to determine how many there are, to do the basic tasks of what journalists do. And if you can’t do that under conditions of stress, you shouldn’t be doing it.
So it isn’t to say that you’re not a human being, it’s just to say that this is your function. It’s like if a surgeon gets sick at the sight of blood, he shouldn’t be a surgeon. So I think that one can have emotional reactions later to things like this, and try to cope with them, but you’re making a certain bargain, which is you think the stories you’re telling, the scenes you’re reporting on, are important.
And if you think it’s important to tell these stories, what’s most important is to do it well, to make sure you observe closely, to make sure you get it right, to make sure, if you say there are X number of people killed that that’s the right number. And so that’s what I try to concentrate on. And I’m not alone in this. This is what people do who do this.
Wojcinska: Do you ever have some kind of posttraumatic stress disorder or something like that after going back from [war]?
Danner: Posttraumatic stress disorder is a defined medical condition, and I am not competent to diagnose something like that. And I think that covering such things, to my mind, is tiring. It takes something out of you, and you need to rest sufficiently. You need to be kind to yourself and realize that there’s a good deal of stress involved, and take account of that. I think you can’t pretend that what you’re doing is working in a factory all day. You’re doing something different, and you have to keep that in mind.
But having said that, a lot of people do this. There are a lot of people who have covered many more wars than I have, and who have made a career of it, and it’s something that people do. And there are also a lot of people who have been killed doing it.
Wojcinska: I think two years ago one of the Polish most famous war photographers, [Krzysztof] Miller, he dealt with posttraumatic stress disorder, and was in the clinic and it was quite [loud] in Polish…inside media discussion. So I’m asking about that because I think it’s also kind of natural reaction that after he photographed, I think, 14 or 15 wars, and parts of war, and really great pictures.
Danner: Yeah, I know his work, of course. I can’t comment on his case.
Wojcinska: Yeah, of course, but that’s why I’m asking about it, yeah.
Danner: Yeah. I don’t…I think it’s very common for people to become emotionally exhausted when doing this kind of work. There are people—and this includes Mr. Miller, I assume—who essentially do this all the time. And my friend John Burns of the New York Times covered wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and he did it every day, and he’s a great reporter, an enormously talented reporter who spent a life doing this. And I very much respect those people.
Although I’ve covered a number of wars, I’m not working for a daily publication. I don’t do it with the kind of intensity, over years and years, that they do. Iraq, I went back and forth to Iraq, I believe, four times, and spent several weeks there each time. And while I was there, it was extremely intense and stressful, not only because of the explosions and the fighting, but also because it became more and more difficult to cover because journalists were threatened with kidnapping.
So there developed, by the last of my visits, a necessity to have security with you because a number of journalists had been kidnapped. And it added a layer of stress and difficulty to the reporting. But having said that, the people who actually were living in Iraq and reporting, like John Burns, Edward Wong, other—I mean, I could name a lot of people—were under much greater stress. They were doing this all the time.
And it can be a hard job. And I think a key part of it is to keep aware that there is a lot of stress involved. But to go back to your original question, if an emotional reaction won’t allow you to do the basic work of reporting, which is to observe what’s happened, to talk to people—you know, this is very unpleasant to do interviews with people, for example, at the Sarajevo market and to say what happened, who was that who was killed, how do you feel about what happened—although I don’t ask that question, to tell you the truth. That’s an awful question.
Wojcinska: [This way.]
Danner: Yeah, it’s awful. How does this make you feel? It’s ridiculous. But to ask questions under those conditions is very awkward and painful, and no one, I think, likes to do it. But if you can’t do that, you’re not being true to the story, because you have to remember that the business you’re there for, the reason you’re there, is to get as faithful an account as possible of what’s going on. And if your emotional reaction interferes with that, then again you’re probably in the wrong business.
A couple days after the market massacre in Bosnia in ’94, I went to Pale, which is the capital of the Serb mini state. It was a little mountain town above Sarajevo from which they were shelling Sarajevo, and I interviewed Radovan Karadzic, who was the leader of the Serbs, and who was the guy who shelled the town. And I think it’s fair to say that…I mean, I wrote a long piece about this, but he denied he had anything to do with it.
He said that the massacre itself… He asked me, did you check their ears? Of the corpses, did you check their ears. And I said, what are you talking about, check their ears? Because I told him I had witnessed the bodies and so on. And I said, what do you mean, check their ears? And he said there was ice in their ears, they had come from the morgue, that in other words the intelligence service of the Bosnian government had faked it. They had done an explosion and then they’d put bodies there.
But a lot of people were saying this on the Serb side. And I knew this was fake. And I remember being somewhat angry when he said this. Now if I had leapt forward and grabbed him by the throat, or yelled at him or something, I wouldn’t have been doing my job, right? I needed to get the full story he was trying to tell me.
And in fact these accounts from the Serb side that they didn’t do it, that it was a Bosnian provocation, that Bosnian intelligence was responsible, they gained a certain currency, and they were able to—I mean, it’s like the earlier example with the dirty war, that when the U.S. embassy says we don’t know who’s doing it, the press takes account of this and it adds a bit of uncertainty. And the same thing with the market massacre. The dogged version from the Serb side that they hadn’t done it was often reported in the press, even though it was an absurd story. So they’re able to move the story.
You see it now. There’s a story on CNN about the killing of two Palestinian teenagers in Beitunya on the West Bank, and it’s a great example of similar use of the media, that these teenagers were shot by Israeli troops. There’s video of them being shot and there’s video of the Israeli troops shooting at the same time.
It’s an obvious…this is what happened. And who knows why? They supposedly weren’t using live rounds, but it’s clear these two teenagers were shot with live rounds. They have the bullets, for god’s sakes. But because the Israeli government is saying no, we weren’t using live rounds, CNN is covering it as if it’s a controversy. There’s this controversy: what happened to the two Palestinians. And it’s like there’s no controversy. They were shot by Israeli troops. There’s no controversy. The Israelis deny it, but there’s no controversy.
The market massacre was carried out by Serb artillery. There’s no controversy. The Serbs deny it, but that’s who carried it out. And in Salvador, government forces, including the Treasury police and military intelligence, were killing civilians at night and kidnapping them and torturing them. There’s no controversy about it, even though the U.S. embassy denies that they know it. So I think this is a vulnerability of the press. Anyway, that’s…
Wojcinska: When I spoke with [Woyzeck] about his work, and he also did a lot of war correspondence, he said to me that for him much more hard it was to speak with the victims than someone who did it, because when he speaks with someone who did it, it’s quite simple thing, yeah?
Danner: I don’t know. Well, I guess I don’t really agree with him on that. I think both are hard. Obviously it depends on the interview. But very often so-called perpetrators are liars, and it’s difficult to carry out a good interview with a liar. You have to understand what you’re doing. You have to use certain strategies to get them to reveal themselves. So I’m not sure whether Woyzeck meant, when he said difficult, if he meant emotional or if he meant technically difficult, from a journalistic point of view.
But I think obviously it depends on the situation. It’s difficult interviewing victims because very often it’s so emotional. And the phenomenon we were talking about with Rufina Amaya, which is the obligation to ask certain questions even though they may be painful, comes into much greater view when interviewing victims, obviously. But I think it can be very difficult interviewing perpetrators, too, because they tend to deny everything.
Wojcinska: Like I think very often American politicians and diplomats, yeah?
Danner: Well, all politicians and diplomats. I wouldn’t single out Americans as particularly mendacious. I think Polish politicians and diplomats probably are pretty mendacious, too.
Wojcinska: Probably. But they are not so, how do you say it, you have much more professional politicians than we are.
Wojcinska: That’s for sure.
Danner: I don’t know. Sikorski seems pretty professional.
Wojcinska: Yeah, but this is the [one] Sikorski.
Danner: Oh, yeah? Okay.
Wojcinska: A lot of other people, but this is a topic for open discussion. However, I want to ask you how do you speak with them, because when I’m—
Danner: With whom?
Wojcinska: With diplomats, for example, like Greentree, yeah? Because it’s 12 years after the whole thing, and it’s well known that it all happened, and he’s saying to you that the main thing was the [dual], this certification, that this was the priority, and I think it’s so cynical. How do you speak with such kind of people? How do you try to just cut off this kind of, let’s say, bullshit, yeah? Because this is bullshit saying that. Typical politician.
Danner: Well, first of all, I think you have to recognize that when you’re interviewing a diplomat or a politician—
Wojcinska: Who’s a diplomat or politician still, yeah?
Danner: Yes. Yes, that’s true. But these are examples of professional exchange. I mean, the first thing to realize is that this is not a human encounter over a drink. When you’re interviewing a diplomat in a war zone, he’s doing his job and you’re doing your job. And his job is to, usually, to get the best press coverage he can. That’s a very broad statement, and there may be different strategies for accomplishing that.
Obviously a diplomat’s strategy in a public briefing in which his name is attributed is going to be very different than a diplomat’s strategy sitting in a bar during an off the record discussion with a journalist. But it’s important to remember that both of those occasions are professional. The diplomat is trying to accomplish something professionally and the journalist is, too.
So I think cynical is not usually the best word because even though there is very often a distance between what the diplomat knows and what he says to a journalist, that doesn’t make him cynical, it makes him professional. And it’s important to remember that they’re trying to accomplish something. They’re not there to help you. They’re there to help the embassy and to help the government.
So Todd—it’s interesting that you’d cite Todd Greentree as an example of cynical because he strikes me as an unusual interview, because he was rather honest, actually. His job, it turned out, was, in a sense, the tip of the spear of U.S. policy. What was U.S. policy when it came to investigating the massacre at El Mozote? What was it?
Was it to find out the truth or was it to do everything that could be done to handle the situation while preserving American funding to the Salvadoran government? The task of American policy was the second. It was in some way to handle the situation while preserving funding. And Todd Greentree was very candid about that—relatively candid about it. And for that I’m grateful.
He also was an interesting figure because he was so young and he was trusted by the press corps. And he wrote a cable which, in the executive summary, said that the massacre, there wasn’t proof it happened, it didn’t look like it happened, but in the body of the cable there was a lot of evidence that it did happen. And the reason that that cable was written that way was because he was so young and inexperienced that he was more honest than he should have been, professionally speaking.
So I think it’s important to remember that they’re doing a job and that part of what they do is lying for a living. And part of what politicians do is lying for a living. This is what they do. And part of what journalists do is accuse politicians of lying. But very often that’s not the most interesting story. And he was candid enough with me about the divergence between what he found and what he wrote that it was very helpful to my story, and telling the story, because you could see how the embassy worked and why they did what they did.
And I think, I hope, that in the book it’s clear the motivations of the embassy and of the American government behind it are clear, that what they wanted to do was preserve funding. And they understood that if what happened, if that massacre had been confirmed, if the reports in the Washington Post and the New York Times were confirmed by the embassy, if they said yes, the U.S. backed Salvadoran government went into this town and murdered 1,000 civilians using U.S. supplied weapons, if they had confirmed that, funding would have been cut off.
And probably the FMLN would have won. Not necessarily, but probably, eventually would have won. So the Salvadoran government would have become the FMLN government next to the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. And this was perceived to be, if it happened, it would have been a defeat for U.S. policy, according to the Reagan Administration certainly, but also—and this is important to remember—according to many on the Democratic side who were opposing Reagan, and Democrats controlled Congress.
Now, the Democrats could have cut off funding themselves. In the United States the Congress controls the money, and they could have stopped American support at any time by voting to stop it. But they didn’t do that because they didn’t want to be blamed for the consequences. So they put this stricture on the aid that the Salvadoran government has to be affirmed as improving in human rights in order to get aid. And this is what led to the cover-up.
So what I’m trying to say is that both those who supported the war strongly and supported the Salvadoran side, the Reagan Administration, and those who claimed to be very skeptical and opposing a lot of the funding, the Democratic Congress, both of them, in a certain way, did not want the massacre to be confirmed. I’m not talking about all Democrats, but substantial numbers of them. So there was a lot of cynicism to go around.
Wojcinska: [Unintelligible] some kind of official, I don’t know, tricks, methods to speak with such people like Greentree or [McKay].
Wojcinska: Because you have to do it all the time, yeah? In Iraq and terror, all those topics also involve [unintelligible].
Danner: Yes. I don’t think, you know, if tricks means a shortcut, you know—
Wojcinska: Maybe tricks is not a good word, but—
Wojcinska: Techniques, methods.
Danner: Techniques, tactics and procedures. That’s what the military calls it, TTP.
Wojcinska: TTP, yeah.
Danner: [Noise.] That’s too bad. Maybe you should stop it and we should move to the back. [Break and move.]
Wojcinska: Okay, so we spoke about—
Danner: Tactics. Techniques, tactics and procedures. And you were interested in techniques in talking to politicians?
Wojcinska: Yes, politicians and diplomats, and people—
Danner: Okay. Do you mind if I sit over there? The light’s behind you. I’m sorry, I’m sort of…
Danner: Maybe you can sit there.
Danner: Thank you. Okay. All right, techniques, tactics and procedures, TTP, as the military calls them, when talking to diplomats or politicians. Well, I think there are no necessary shortcuts in this, but I think that one thing that helps is obviously a reputation for being trustworthy. This is a basic tool in dealing with people like that, that they know your work, that they know who you are, and that they know that when they say something is off the record or on background, that you’ll honor those requests. This is obviously very basic.
I think that one of the advantages that… I think you have to use your advantages, and one of the advantages that I have in interviewing such people is—there are a couple. One is the fact that I write long form pieces, so I can say to them this isn’t a bit of daily journalism, this is going to be something that will really explain your point of view, and will give it sufficient context and background that it will do it justice, it’ll have nuances.
Because in many cases such diplomats and politicians are very used to having their views, in their opinion, distorted in daily news accounts, because they’re summarized, they’re brief quotes, they’re things that don’t give, in their opinion, a full appreciation for the complications and nuances of what they do. So one of the things that I can bring is to say I’m going to be able to give a full account of what you did and why you did what you did. I’m going to be able to give you a full hearing and to do that justice in what I write. And that’s a rather powerful thing when you are talking to a politician or a diplomat.
A third advantage, I think, is to show that you have studied what they have done and why they did it, to show that you comprehend their work in a much broader way, that you are speaking to them on their level, on the level of practitioner, and that you’re not trying simply to catch them in a contradiction or catch them being cynical, that you’re actually trying to understand what they’re doing on their own terms.
Wojcinska: Okay, so taking some kind of [their] point of view.
Danner: I’m not saying—
Danner: I wouldn’t go so far as to say their point of view, but I would say that if you go into an interview with a diplomat who served in Salvador during the war, served in the American Embassy in Salvador during the war and simply say, well, you knew about the death squad killings, and you publicly said that you didn’t, and isn’t that a lie, if you do that, you’re going to end up with a fairly—what’s the word—expected, unsurprising, combative interview.
If you go into it saying the embassy’s public position over years of death squad killings was we don’t know who’s doing these things—and of course it was widely understood among the press and even off the record by those diplomats that they did know—wouldn’t it have been easier to admit you knew and to contend that behind the scenes you were trying to reduce the number of those killings, that in fact the embassy was making an effort to stop them? That’s a way to actually start a discussion. Because in fact some parts of the embassy were trying to diminish them. Other parts, arguably, were making them worse.
So that’s a fourth point. It’s actually a corollary to the third, which is if you give an appreciation for the kind of political stresses they’re dealing with—and that is not only the politics of Salvador, but the politics coming down from Washington—in other words, Washington is pressuring the embassy to do certain things, and then the politics within the embassy, because the embassy consists of political officers, people who are concerned with the political level of the Salvadoran government, military, mil-group officers, people who are dealing with the Salvadoran military, CIA and other intelligence people, including Defense Intelligence Agency, people who have liaison with the Salvadoran military, and who actually sometimes are training it, or going out on missions.
And these people have different responsibilities and different allegiances. The mil-group officers work for the Pentagon, and very often they’re not necessarily in control of the ambassador. So very often the political officers are not very happy with what the mil-group officers are doing, or they’re not very happy with what the CIA chief of station is doing.
And if you show a sophisticated understanding of those sorts of internal political stresses, very often you get more information because you’re actually asking them things that show you know what’s happening on the inside, their daily work, rather than combatting them on the outside. You’re kind of classing yourself more as a kind of…someone with inside knowledge, and it will generally be more productive.
A final point, to go back to your question about Todd Greentree, I think one of the reasons that I had a very productive series of interviews with him—and these were carried out on the telephone—he was in Nepal, the Nepal embassy at the time.
Wojcinska: Quite far.
Danner: In Katmandu. You can’t get any farther. And I’d have to arrange appointments between trekking, when he was going out to the Himalayas and trekking, and we’d have to arrange an appointment, and so I was talking to him over the telephone. But by the time I interviewed him, I knew the story very well, and it meant that I could point to specific things he had done, from the record, that he had forgotten about, but I knew.
And so it’s a version of the second point, but again, it’s an enormous advantage to be very well informed about a story, to show the interview subject that, and to get on the ground of his information. And Greentree, finally, is an example of—I mean, this is something cops and reporters know, that people have a natural urge to confess. People have a natural urge to confess. They want to tell what they did and they want to justify what they did.
And Todd Greentree is a very good example of that. He wanted to tell what he did and he wanted to justify it. And to some extent, he wanted to expiate it in telling it, so he wanted the book written. He wanted this story to be public. And I think that it’s important to be able to recognize such people, and there are a lot of them, and to be able to approach them in a way that will encourage them to talk.
And that means—and all of the foregoing points are useful in this—that means in some way engendering trust. And engendering trust is the critical part of a successful interview. You’re not trying to be someone’s friend, you’re not trying to be their enemy.
Again, this goes back to the point about being professional. You’re trying to get from them the story insofar as they honestly perceive it. And if they’re giving you what you called bullshit earlier, if they’re giving you bullshit, you want to try to see the holes in that bullshit, to mix metaphors, and to be able to use those holes or inconsistencies to open the story up and get to them in another way. And of course sometimes the bullshit itself can be revealing.
Wojcinska: Oh, yeah. Yeah, of course.
Danner: You hope.
Wojcinska: Do you think that the same mechanism, the mechanism of this need to confess, worked in case of these officers of American special forces, who worked with Salvador soldiers that time you spoke with?
Danner: John McKay, you’re talking about?
Wojcinska: Yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah. And the nameless which you mention in your book.
Danner: I’m sorry, nameless?
Wojcinska: Because you write about officer of special forces who trained Salvadoran soldiers.
Danner: Yes, I talked to a number of people who wouldn’t speak, you know, talked to me on conditions that their name not be used. I don’t know if confession is the right word. I think, you know, many of these people—and again it’s important to be able to recognize this—many of these people were proud of the work they did. They’re not ashamed of it. They feel that they were working in an important and valuable cause for the U.S. government, and they’d like to be able to talk about it.
And professional responsibilities mean that they can’t talk about it, but again, they have… I’d say the urge to confess isn’t the right phrase. It’s an urge to explain themselves. And by saying listen, I just want to talk to you, I just want to understand it, I don’t need to use your name, if they trust that, which is all important, then it allows you to get their explanation, and sometimes to use it, to print it, or at least to inform yourself. I mean, for every word of quotation in the book there are a thousand words of conversation with these people, so the quotes are a very small part.
The first thing you do is you want to understand the story yourself, and that involves…so it’s always more valuable to talk to somebody, even if you can’t quote them. If they’re willing to talk to you and help you understand, you always want to do that. So when you look at the interviews—I mean, probably for this book I interviewed several hundred people, and probably 30 or 40 are quoted, I’d say, at most.
And obviously your first goal is that people talk to you, even if you’re not going to quote them or use any of their words. So you have this…say there are 500 people who you’d like to talk to, and of those, 200 simply refuse, or can’t be reached. They won’t talk to you. They hang up on you, which happens. Three hundred perhaps you talk to. One hundred you can use their names in some way, maybe, depending on the conditions.
Wojcinska: How many people did you speak with working on this?
Danner: Well, I just told you.
Wojcinska: It was about 300?
Danner: I would say, yeah. Between two and three hundred I’d say, probably.
Wojcinska: A lot. Because the book was written quite fast after the article.
Danner: Relatively, yeah.
Wojcinska: So you work night and day?
Danner: [Laughs.] No. I think you just…you know. When I was in Salvador I saw people continually. And you do a lot of interviews. And then you do a lot of interviews on the telephone. I mean, I don’t know that that’s the right number, 300, but it was certainly in the hundreds. And some interviews, you know, Rufina’s was five hours. Greentree I probably talked to several hours altogether. And then there are people that you talk to for 20 minutes or whatever, ten minutes.
Wojcinska: You note or record?
Danner: It depends. With very important interviews like Rufina’s I recorded it. With many interviews I don’t, I use a notebook.
Wojcinska: Okay. And you need to write down, yeah, after recording, so it’s hours of work.
Danner: Yes, well, you transcribe what you need to transcribe. You don’t necessarily transcribe everything. I mean, sometimes recordings are simply a way to bolster handwritten notes, because I always take notes whether I’m recording or not. If I interview a head of state, for example, I’ll always record it, just to have a record, and to let us both know that it’s being recorded. But I would also take a lot of notes while I was doing it.
Wojcinska: How did you manage to convince those people, for example, some officers of Salvadoran army?
Danner: Well, I just told you.
Wojcinska: Because you said that the moment wasn’t so…
Danner: It was a very difficult time in Salvador, when it looked like there was going to be a coup d’état. There was a lot of pressure on the government from the military. And it meant that the Salvadoran government, which… Salvadoran officers, who are never very cooperative with the press, or at least weren’t then, were especially hard to reach. The Salvadoran military as a group, that is, their press office, didn’t cooperate at all. I couldn’t get them to do a thing for me.
But I did contact a lot of officers individually, and spoke to a good many of them, and usually it was off the record. It was usually on condition I not use their name. But many of these conversations were very helpful. Some of them I quoted, even though I didn’t use their name. And as I said earlier, your first goal is not to get a quotation, your first goal is to gain understanding. I mean, your first goal in talking to people is not to get quotations from them. Your first goal is to understand the story.
And so the more officers I spoke to…you know, sometimes I was talking to them simply to understand how the army worked, how the officer corps worked, how orders were distributed, what it would have taken for a massacre like El Mozote to be ordered, what level would that order have come from, how did the army ready itself for an operation like El Riscate, what was the thinking of the officer corps at that time, what was their confidence in their soldiers, what about their relationship to mil-group officers, that is, the American officers, would they have known about such an operation, how informed were they about what the army was actually doing, what was their relationship with American intelligence.
So there are a lot of questions that you could ask in much more general terms that will inform you about what the odds would have been with this particular operation, you see? So there’s certain questions. I mean, if you say did the CIA know about El Mozote, very often the officer’s going to look at you and just say...phff, and not answer or, you know, or lie. But if you say what was your opinion at the time of U.S. intelligence? Were they helpful? Did they give you information? In other words, if you ask it in a way that they might be able to engage the question, that can then lead to a more specific discussion of what happened at a specific time.
So you have to know how to ask… I mean, you’re usually better in getting… You know, the better stance to be in with respect to a Salvadoran military officer is to be talking in much more general terms about their career and what they do as if you simply want to understand what they do. And that is generally flattering for people. I’m interested in you. I’d like to know what you do. Your profession fascinates me. Please help me to understand how the Salvadoran military works.
Wojcinska: So you are so less confrontive as you can, yeah?
Danner: Well, it depends. I mean, I think if you become confrontational at the beginning, you’re probably not going to get a good interview. I mean, you’re doing the interview to gain information. That’s it. I’m not on a television camera. It’s not like I need a confrontation to broadcast. The only one who is going to know about this interview, probably, are the two of us. So the question is what do I want to get out of it.
And the other question is what is the officer getting out of it. Why is he giving you his time. You have to ask that about people. It’s not his job. He’s giving you his time. Why? And one reason might be because it’s interesting, or because he gets to tell his story, or because he gets to look back at his life and try to understand his career.
And very often you can get a great interview by just saying tell me about your career. Where were you stationed? Oh, you were in San Miguel, I didn’t realize that. San Miguel was very hot at that time. So you show that you know what he did. San Miguel, there was a lot of fighting around San Miguel. So you were in intelligence. What kind of work, in general—I know you can’t tell me specific things, but what kind of work does an intelligence officer do every day? Oh, really? Were you innovative in your intelligence work? What did you do?
In other words, you want to start a conversation where he’s talking about himself. And it very often is the case that this military officer has never had this kind of conversation. No one has ever said I’m very interested in what you do.
Wojcinska: And Lawrence Grobel said the most interesting topic for everybody is mainly himself.
Danner: This is true. Who said that?
Wojcinska: I think Lawrence Grobel, American journalist.
Danner: Lawrence Grobel.
Wojcinska: The one who interviews a lot of celebrities like Truman Capote.
Danner: What’s the last name?
Wojcinska: Grobel. I don’t know if my pronunciation is okay.
Danner: How is it spelled?
Danner: I don’t know it. But I think that’s a perceptive comment. I think that’s true. You have to get people talking about themselves. And you have to remember you’re not there to say oh, this is a horrible military officer. He’s part of the Salvadoran military. I have to tell him what a shit he is. Because if you do that, you may as well not be there. I mean, what’s the point? You’re going to not have much of an interview, and it’s not very satisfying, and you’re there to find out information, that’s all.
Wojcinska: Yeah. And how do you remember your conversation with Andrea Marquez, the woman whose small child died in the mountains, the one who escaped from La Joya?
Danner: Right, La Joya. Well, she was a very…it was a very weird story of people who saw her and compared her to a kind of demon of the woods. She was driven kind of crazy. So that was just something I heard about from someone. And in a way it was…you know, there is a sense in which the Mozote story sort of blends into myth in certain ways, indigenous myths of the Salvadoran mountains, and that’s one of them.
Rufina Amaya herself is the kind of wandering refugee, after this massacre, wandering like a madwoman in the hills, is almost a mythical figure. So yeah, they’re very powerful figures. If I did the book again I might write more about Andrea Marquez. I mean, there are many people who…I think this book is the right length, but at the time I was trying to keep it tight, and it indeed did, it took up one issue, full issue of New Yorker, which is supposedly the second time that’s ever happened after John Hersey’s piece “Hiroshima.” It’s very unusual for them to do that.
Wojcinska: Yeah, it is.
Danner: But it possibly would have been longer if I’d thought oh, I’m working on a book on El Mozote. And at the time I thought I was essentially doing an article. Obviously, at a certain point, I was clear it was going to be a book as well. But I might have had a little bit more about her, among others.
Wojcinska: I was wondering, during reading this book, why you have here so small amount of single protagonist. Because it’s very popular style in Polish reporting that you have this human story, and behind that facts and everything. I was wondering why you did it such way.
Danner: Yeah, I’m not sure I understand the question.
Wojcinska: The question is because you write a lot about facts and what happened, but you have only few very visible protagonists, like Monterrosa and the whole history, which is incredible and interesting with the end also.
Danner: I know.
Wojcinska: And also Rufina, yeah. But as you said, for example, this Andrea, the story is quite small inside. And I was wondering, in terms of workshop, yeah, why you decided to tell the story this way.
Danner: Well, I think I gave you really the answer to this earlier. There are two answers. One is that, as I said, I had a couple of tasks. One was to show what happened, and the other to try to understand why. And the second part of the answer is what I just said, which is that this was meant to be a magazine article. And as it was, it was 49,000 words.
Danner: I believe 49. So that’s very long for a magazine article. So there were certain constraints of space. I mean, it was supposed to be…it was much longer than anyone expected. I think that’s the answer.
Wojcinska: And this is why you decided to make the book of it?
Danner: What is?
Wojcinska: That it was so long and you have so many materials. When the idea you were working on the article, and when the idea that it should be a book came to you.
Danner: Well, it was, you know, at a certain point it was obviously a book length piece, so I’m not sure when the idea came, but at a certain point it was obviously a book.
Wojcinska: Okay, so it was kind of natural.
Danner: I think so, yeah.
Wojcinska: How do you see your role? Do you think you are some kind of person with a mission to tell the truth? Because we all the time speak about these two orders, the human order and the politician order, yeah?
Danner: I’m not sure. Human order and politician order?
Wojcinska: Maybe human narration. You know what I mean?
Danner: Not really.
Wojcinska: The true of people living there, and the true of what happened, and the second narration is the true of what politician try to say about it.
Wojcinska: So I’m asking about your role as a journalist, reporter in it, how do you see it? What is our job?
Danner: I think your job is to tell a story about what happened. I think it was Ranke, the historian, who said his task was to tell wie es eigentlich gewesen, I believe the phrase was, as it really happened. And that’s a complicated idea, actually, in Ranke’s terms, but it’s a good slogan for a writer. You try to tell what really happened.
Of course that’s kind of a limiting condition, in a way. There are countless ways to tell a story. There are countless ways to put a story together. I’m here for the Kapuscinski Prize, obviously, and I look at Ryszard’s—I knew Ryszard well, and I’m struck by the fact, in rereading much of his work over the last couple of weeks, that very often his books contain images of putting stories together, taking chaos and making it into order.
In the beginning of Shah of Shahs, the first image of that book is a pile of stuff in his hotel room in Tehran, a pile of photographs, cassette tapes, notes, all of this junk heaped up, and out of that pile comes the story. There are chunks that read Note 6, and then it comes out, Photograph 7 and then a description of the photograph, Tape 13. And so it’s almost as if Shah of Shahs, one of the themes is how writing of a story is a gradual building of a kind of order out of chaos.
And similarly in The Emperor, which I think is probably his greatest book, you have at the beginning…it begins with a description of going and visiting these various figures at night in Addis Ababa, getting their stories, which he then puts together. Remember, it’s kind of a book of quotations, in a sense, supposed quotations. And so I think Ryszard was fascinated with what telling a story is, the construction of the story, the building, the shaping of the story out of chaos into order, which of course is how Genesis begins. This is how we begin a story, this is how we begin the world.
And I think that that’s what a storyteller does, and I think that’s basically what I would call myself, is a storyteller. That’s what Ryszard was. And what you at bottom try to do is take events or occurrences, phenomena that you think are important, for whatever reason—and that’s another whole discussion about what’s important—and you try to find out about them, see them from many different angles, from many different points of view—from the point of view of participants, from the point of view of documents, from the point of view of political effect—and then you try to tell that story in a comprehensible and compelling way, with clarity, with suspense. So at the end of the day, you’re trying to tell stories that make important aspects of the world clear to people.
I mean, at the present moment I’ve been writing a series of long articles for the New York Review of Books about contemporary political leaders in the United States. It began with a series about Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld’s out of office now. He’s the former Secretary of Defense. But he’s a critical figure. When you look at American foreign policy now, it’s still overshadowed by Donald Rumsfeld. I mean, Barack Obama’s main task as a foreign policy president has been to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, notably, that Donald Rumsfeld started as Defense Secretary.
So I wrote three pieces about him, trying to understand him, and wrote then three pieces about Dick, Cheney, the former Vice President, who was certainly the most powerful Vice President in American history, and was a critical figure in the policies of the Bush Administration. I think it’s very unlikely that you would have had a policy of official torture, of which I’ve written about a lot, without Dick Cheney.
The policy of official torture hangs over U.S. foreign policy and U.S. policy towards human rights just the way the Iraq war and the Afghan war hang over U.S. policy. And the public’s exhaustion with these foreign wars determines a lot of political decisions that are made about U.S. foreign policy now. So I’ve decided these figures are important and haven’t been well understood, and I gather information in interviews, and read about them, and do these pieces.
I’m starting a series—I hope I’ll finish one on the plane back to America—on Robert Gates, who was not only the Defense Secretary under Bush and then under Obama, so he was for both of them, but also was a long time spy. He joined the CIA in 1966. So his whole career before that last job as Secretary of Defense was in the Central Intelligence Agency. And he’s a fascinating figure, I think, so I’m going to be writing about him. And maybe I’ll be writing about Hillary Clinton. And all of these figures, I think, are important for understanding U.S. policy and what the U.S. is doing in the world, and U.S. politics, too.
Wojcinska: Do you perceive yourself as a man with a kind of mission?
Danner: I don’t know what that means, really.
Wojcinska: Or it’s just work, as you said previously?
Danner: What do you mean a kind of mission? [Interruption.] I’m sorry, so what was your…you were saying a mission?
Wojcinska: I was asking about mission, because some journalists I am speaking with, they say and see themselves as kind of mission, their work as a kind of mission, and so I’m just curious how do you see it, and what do you, for example, tell to your students in Berkeley about this job?
Danner: Well, I find writing very hard, and I wouldn’t…I mean, there are many jobs that I think you can do that are easier than being a writer. Certainly there are many jobs you can do that are financially more rewarding, that’s for sure.
Wojcinska: Oh, yes.
Danner: So I think that it’s… It would be wrong for me to say that it’s just a job. I certainly don’t think that’s so. I can earn a living teaching or doing other things and not writing, so obviously writing is very important to me. The stories that I tell, I tell because they’re important to me and I think they’re important, or should be important, to other people. And that’s how I choose what I want to write about.
I think it was important, the decision of the United States to invade Iraq. I thought it was a critically mistaken decision. I spoke out about it publicly, and I also covered the war, and went to Iraq, and wrote about it, because I thought it was important. I think the decision of the United States to officially torture is extremely important. Extremely important. And that’s why I’ve written about it for ten years now, and have written, arguably, three books about it.
So I write about things that are important to me. I think El Mozote was a very important event in history—American history, Salvadoran history, obviously world history, I think. So I decide to write about things because I feel and believe that these stories should be told and it’s important that they be told.
When you ask if I feel I have a mission, I’m hesitant to answer yes because I think very often, I’ve learned that that question is usually…implies essentially that the mission you’re talking about is to change the world, to change policy. In other words, to say, in answer, I’m writing this way on these subjects because I want to change what the U.S. is doing, for example. I think if you really think that way…in other words, another way to put that is to say I define my success as if I write about something and that article somehow changes policy, then I’m successful.
I think if you really take that approach to your work, you’ll go mad, because it’s very infrequent that a book or an article has a visible effect on U.S. foreign policy or anything. I mean, it happens, but it’s relatively rare. Usually effects are incremental.
The El Mozote book I wrote eventuated in a report from the State Department essentially saying that…it was essentially a kind of mea culpa saying that the United States State Department misled the public and reporters during the Salvadoran war. And I read this report and I was very happy about it, but I don’t kid myself that it’s that important. The war was over. The U.S. got the results it wanted. I think if the U.S. operated again in a similar situation, it would probably do similar things.
I published, a few years ago, in 2009, the International Committee of the Red Cross report on torture. It was a very, very secret document that I obtained. It contained extensive interviews with high value detainees like Abu Zubaydah, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and others who had been tortured by the United States, and who gave their accounts of torture. And I published this document, articles about it first, with extensive quotations, in the New York Times, in the New York Review of Books, and then eventually I put the document, which had been very top secret, on the New York Review of Books website so the public could read it.
It’s a remarkable document, extraordinary. It describes in great detail waterboarding and other techniques of torture that the United States used. This was in the spring of 2009. The Obama Administration was engaged in internal discussions at that time about what to do about torture, and the administration, shortly after I published these articles and this document, released the memos from the Department of Justice that, under George W. Bush, had said that this torture was legal.
In other words, these were the documents that gave permission to the CIA to torture detainees, that said this isn’t torture. They’re remarkable documents, legal documents. But they, in effect, made torture legal. And officials of the Obama Administration, including David Axelrod, the Director of Communications in the White House, and Rahm Emanuel, the White House Chief of Staff, said on television, in television interviews, that they were making these public because all of the information had already been in the New York Review of Books. So they attributed the decision directly to this article.
Now, on the one hand I was happy that they said this. And it’s possible that the publication of the article influenced the decision. But I think it’s also possible that they were going to release them anyway, and they used my articles’ existence as a kind of excuse. So I don’t kid myself that individual acts of journalism can dramatically change policy. It happens, but it’s relatively rare.
I mean, one example is during the Watergate scandal in the United States in the early ‘70s. It’s clear that articles in the Washington Post helped very much lead to the resignation of Richard Nixon. Now, of course that is to say not only that the reporters did their jobs well, but that there were people within the government who were wanting to expose this information. They had sources who wanted to bring down the Nixon Administration. So it’s much more complicated than simply heroic journalists. And by the same token, I got that document. It didn’t arise out of thin air. There are other actors involved.
So when you say do you have a mission, I think there are certain issues that are very important to me. Obviously, many of these issues have to do with…are often grouped under the general category of human rights—massacres, tortures, extrajudicial killing—all of this stuff is…you can see it in the record of my work, what I’m interested in. And I obviously see these issues as extremely important because that’s why I devote my time and effort to them rather than being a stockbroker and making more money.
And I guess in that sense I have a mission because I’m interested in these subjects and I think they’re important, and I think I can do something about them by exposing them and helping people understand them. But I have a very restricted definition of what success is. I think it’s mistaken to say this article is not successful because I wrote about torture, but torture still goes on, or I wrote about torture, but the Bush Administration, people who permitted it have not been tried, therefore, what I wrote was not successful.
I think you can’t define things that way because history is a much more inscrutable process. You have to see, as value, simply exposing and writing about things that you think are important and helping people understand them, and hope, in the long term, your efforts will contribute to something, to making the world better than it would have been otherwise. And that’s a relatively modest definition of a mission, but I think that’s a better definition.
Wojcinska: Do you think that people, readers, really still need this kind of journalism nowadays, when there are so many tabloids journalism, and this fast information, social media, everything, it’s kind of chaotic mass. And do you think readers need this going deeper journalist telling the true story on the basis?
Danner: Well, obviously I think they do or I wouldn’t do it.
Wojcinska: What are the most important things you tell your students on the courses about, for example, writing and about wars?
Danner: Well, most important things… I mean, I think I tell them many of the things I’ve just talked about with you.
Wojcinska: I’m happy about that.
Danner: I think that at the end of the day…I think there are a number of things that can help you become a good writer. The first thing is to read good writing. I think the expression is you write with your ears. You write with your ears. And what that expression means is that you have in your ear the sound of good writing because of what you’ve read. So the first thing I do with my students is make sure they’ve read certain essential texts that I think they shouldn’t be able to graduate from journalism school without having read.
In general, I think there can be too much emphasis on praxis—you know, how do you write this piece, as if it comes out of a craft education. Write this piece. Well, one of the ways you can write a piece is you know how others have written pieces before. So, for example, I make sure they read Kapuscinski. That’s one of the things I do.
My students tend to read The Emperor, sometimes Shah of Shahs, very often The Soccer War. He’s one of the writers who I emphasize, that I think it’s important that they read. George Orwell is another. Joan Didion. I could name many others whose writing I think they must read. And I think that very often there’s too much emphasis on learning how to do the thing, as if you can do it in a vacuum, as if you don’t have to know anything.
I think a second thing I can teach them is how governments work. I think to do a story like El Mozote, as I described to you, you have to know what the political officer in an embassy does—what are the pressures on him? What does he hear from Washington? What’s his job? What is his interest when he talks to a reporter? And these are questions of knowledge, of education.
I think the more a reporter or a writer knows about how the various elements of his story function together, the more effective he or she is in doing the job, so I try to teach them that. I think that it isn’t simply a question of sitting down and saying here’s how you write a piece, because that, at the end of the day, composition of a piece is only one small part of what doing the job is.
Wojcinska: I think this is very often the thing that especially young journalists concentrate on.
Danner: Well, I mean, there’s a great deal of anxiety about getting jobs, about having the skills necessary, because the world right now of journalism and writing—media I guess would be a better word—as you implied before, is now so…it’s fragmented, it’s in great transition and greatly unstable. There is both a temporary financial crisis and a longer-term existential crisis when it comes to media and journalism that, in a sense, overlap one another.
The financial crisis has to do with advertising and coming out of recession and so on. The long-term existential crisis has to do with the general business model of how writing, journalism, media, pay for themselves. And this is all the effect of the digital revolution, which has had a similar effect on the music industry. It’s happening in film as well. So this causes great instability, and for people who want to go into the field, great anxiety.
The students I teach at Berkeley in the Journalism Department—and I also teach in the English Department—but the students in the Journalism Department have great anxiety about their futures. And so one of the ways they combat that anxiety is wanting to learn skills. I want to know how to do a film piece. I want to know how to do a website. I want to know how to write a long form piece. Teach me. Teach me how to do it. So they want to learn a skill. So there is a focus on instruction. But I think there also has to be a complementary focus on learning, on education.
Wojcinska: And this whole background, yeah?
Danner: And what?
Wojcinska: And the whole background, yeah, like Kapuscinski said, that for one page written, you should read 100. That was his expression, very nice.
Danner: Yes, I love that. I don’t think I ever heard that quote. That’s great.
Wojcinska: Yeah, it is. And he said it’s… You can always hear it when you are on the journalist courses here in Poland.
Danner: For one page written you should read 100.
Danner: At least. That’s what I would add to that. At least.
Wojcinska: And you met Kapuscinski in New York, as you said yesterday.
Danner: I met Kapuscinski in New York in 1986 at the PEN International Conference, a huge conference of writers from around the world. I met Salman Rushdie there, Peter Schneider, many other writers, and we became friends. I published The Soccer War in Harper’s, where I was then working, Harper’s magazine. He was an extraordinary friend, immensely generous, very funny. He liked to drink. He liked to have a good time. He liked, obviously, to tell stories, a great storyteller. And he was immensely generous to me, encouraging in my work.
Wojcinska: What do you mean generous to you?
Danner: What do I mean what?
Wojcinska: By generosity.
Danner: He encouraged me greatly in my work. He always read, faithfully, what I wrote. I did a series of articles on Haiti, which was my first very large-scale work as a foreign correspondent. He called me up and praised those very lavishly, which meant a great deal to me because I admired intensely his writing. So this would have been in 1989, so I had known him three years. And I got a phone call one day and it was Ryszard saying, “Mark, this article, this Haiti is wonderful. It’s beautiful.”
Danner: Yes, it was very…it meant the world to me. I was very happy. And I would see him whenever he was in New York. We would have dinner or would have lunch, and we’d talk about the world, talk about reporting. He treated me very much as an equal colleague and encouraged me to do work.
The El Mozote made…I was very touched. It’s really why I’m here in Warsaw. I was very touched when the El Mozote book was nominated for the Kapuscinski Prize because I knew him and because he liked this book a lot. He also praised it to me. And I thought…there’s also the fact that it takes place a few miles from where the Soccer War did, as I mentioned. So for all these reasons, I was very touched by the nomination, and by becoming a finalist for this award because, I think, Ryszard being somehow connected to this book.
And he was a great writer. There’s no question in my mind that he wrote enduring works of literature. I think The Emperor, Shah of Shahs and perhaps others of his books will be lasting works of literature. They are very considerable achievements, and I greatly admire them. And I like to make sure, as I mentioned, that students read them, because I think they’re essential works to have read. And I just wish he was still with us. He left us long before he should have. He was still a very young…was he 71 or…?
Danner: And he was a very young 71. He was not ready to go. And I’m very sorry he’s not with us today, because he was a lovely man, very funny, very entertaining, very generous, very loyal, and I miss him.
Wojcinska: And you also knew Czeslaw Milosz.
Danner: I did. I did know Czeslaw. I met Czeslaw in 1981, I believe, in New York, when he came to receive a prize from New York University. I was working at the New York Review at the time. It might have been ’82. It was ’81 or ’82. I was working at the New York Review of Books, and my boss, Robert Silvers, the editor then, as now, of the New York Review, was asked to present the award, and he wrote a little speech. And my job was to type it up. And he kept changing the speech.
He was clearly very nervous, because Czeslaw was then a very big figure, a very glamorous figure, because he represented not least Poland and what was going on in Poland, Solidarity, so he was a very glamorous figure at this time. And I remember vividly shaking his hands and meeting him at NYU. He had these big eyebrows, very handsome, very glamorous, charismatic. And I read his work with great admiration, The Captive Mind, among others, which I think is a work of considerable genius.
And later in Berkeley I had a dinner, actually, for Robert Silvers, who I did an on stage interview with at the journalism school, and afterwards I had a dinner for him at my house. And Bob and I arrived late to the dinner because we had done this interview, and as I walked in the door of my apartment, the first person I laid eyes on was Czeslaw Milosz standing near the door reading…standing, reading the New York Review of Books. He had it open like this.
And on the cover was an article of mine, an essay about Kosovo, so this was ’98 or ’99, and he was reading it, and I walked up to him with Bob, and he reached—I think of him now as being very tall. He wasn’t very tall, but I think of him as looming above me, this kind of big, bear-like figure, and as I remember it, he reached down with his huge hand and grasped my hand, and from a great height—this is how I remember it—from a great height he said, very slowly, “I really admire your writing,” like that. [Laughs.] To which I just responded, “Oh!” You know, I gasped, because I knew it was the most important compliment I’d ever received, or probably would receive.
And I got to know him pretty well, had dinner at his—he had a most beautiful house called Grizzly Peak. It was up overlooking—or is up overlooking the Bay in a cluster of Redwood trees and Monterey Pines, huge trees, and all these deer around. It’s an amazing place where I went with my then girlfriend and had dinner and saw him there.
And eventually, because he was living half the year with his wife Carol, he was living half the year in Cracow, and as I lived half the year in New York, when I came to Berkeley, he asked if I’d want to rent his house. So I began renting his house. When Carol and he were in Cracow, I was in their house in Berkeley on Grizzly Peak. And eventually I went and visited him with my then girlfriend Liz in Cracow. We went and visited him there, and he told me, “Mark, I want you to have the house.” [Laughs.] So I now own Grizzly Peak. That’s where I live, in Czeslaw’s house.
Danner: Yes, it’s a most beautiful place. He wrote 50, 40 books there, including—
Wojcinska: Yeah, the spirit of house.
Danner: The spirit of the house is very strong. He wrote Visions of San Francisco Bay, Year of the Hunter, many books that have the house as a major protagonist in them. His poem “Dar,” Gift, is about the garden of that house. So yes, his spirit is in that house. There’s a bookcase in the house, a small bookcase, that has all his books, all my copies of his books, with a picture of him on it, a portrait.
And I have a little 13-month-old daughter now, very tiny little daughter Grace, Grace Danner, who likes to crawl over to the bookcase and pull all the books out. She likes this particular bookcase. And the other day I came upon her. She was sitting on the floor and all the Milosz books were surrounding her, including one with the back of it with his portrait looking up at her, very handsome portrait when he was very young, very handsome.
Wojcinska: Oh, he was very handsome.
Danner: He was very handsome. And it was looking up at her. And I just thought, ah, he would find this so funny, this little baby with all Czeslaw’s books.
Wojcinska: How old is she?
Danner: She’s 13 months.
Wojcinska: Oh, so she’s four months younger than my son.
Danner: That’s good. Congratulations.
Wojcinska: Congratulations. It’s a great time.
Danner: It’s a great time.
Wojcinska: I love it.
Danner: I do, too. I do, too. But she’s a fan of Milosz’s books, so it gives me great happiness. Yeah, I think he would be very happy to know that a little baby is in the house, in Grizzly Peak.
Wojcinska: Can I have one last question? It’s quite a serious one.
Danner: Okay. Yes, I think I’ve got someone who’s going to be here, so…we’re actually past the time. Go ahead.
Wojcinska: What do you think about this [fluent] coming from the communist [cancer] in American policy to terror war, this terrorist mass [cancer], because it’s…
Danner: Well, I’ve written about this. I did a cover article for the New York Times magazine called “Taking Stock of the Forever War” that described the fact that after 9/11 the U.S. essentially got into a new Cold War, that structures of U.S. foreign policy were built around Cold War models, and the U.S. responded to the attacks very much as if the Cold War had started again. The U.S. doubled the defense budget, for instance, which was a ridiculous thing to do. Anyway, this is not my contention. The Defense Science Board did a report saying this.
So I think that it’s very true that the United States fought the war that it wanted to fight and that it was used to fighting instead of fighting the appropriate war. And I’ve written this not only in “Taking Stock of the Forever War,” which was published in 2005, but also in my recent pieces on Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney in the New York Review of Books. I think that many of the decisions made were self-defeating.
I think the U.S.—and I predicated this before the Iraq war, said it publicly in a debate with Christopher Hitchens, that Al Qaeda could not defeat the United States, but the United States could defeat the United States by taking foolish actions that were self-defeating. And I think the invasion and occupation of Iraq was a foolish action that was self-defeating.
It gave enormous reinforcement to Al Qaeda. It helped their recruitment. It established an Al Qaeda branch in Iraq which is now still controlling Anbar Province, and fighting in Syria. It gave impulsion and encouragement and recruits to Al Qaeda forces around the world. It was absolutely the wrong thing to do.
And it finally, of course, produced an American public that is more isolationist than any American public for 50 years. So it’s effects on the United States were extremely detrimental and extremely helpful to Al Qaeda in every way. And I’ve written this repeatedly, including before the war, so yes. And a lot of this had to do with choosing policies that were essentially a continuation of the Cold War.
And Bush said this in his speech of September 20, 2001, nine days after the attacks, when he gave a speech to the Joint Session of Congress. He said “we have seen their kind before,” and he compared Al Qaeda to the Nazis or the Communists. And this was not an appropriate comparison. Al Qaeda didn’t control a state, it didn’t have an army. This was not Nazi Germany, this was not Soviet Russia. This was a small conspiratorial group that should have been dealt with with small groups of fighters, paramilitary fighters, CIA.
Invading Iraq was a very terribly catastrophic mistake, and we’re still suffering from it right now, as are, of course, the people of Iraq, where perhaps 200,000 people or more have died, and continue to die. The violence in Iraq is catastrophic. It remains so. Even though Americans don’t pay attention to it anymore.
This is the privilege of power, the blitheness of power. You can invade a country, destroy it, in essence, see a grand civil war start there, withdraw, and then never think about it again. And most of the American public never thinks about Iraq. So I think U.S. policies after September 11th were filled with catastrophic mistakes that are still dominating U.S. foreign policy.
Wojcinska: Thank you.
Danner: You’re welcome.
[End of recording.]