Mark Danner discusses El Mozote with Students in Warsaw.

Transcript of Mark Danner's discussion with student, Alice Deneka in Warsaw, Poland

Your father was a dentist and your mother was a teacher in a high school. Why did you choose journalism as a career?

I never was actually cautious of choosing journalism. I think I knew it from early point of my life. At school I want to be a writer. I don’t know if I admitted it to myself, but it was always that I did the best. I don’t ever remember I was thinking to be a journalist. I guess I thought more broadly about it, just wanted to be a writer. 

Why did you get interested in foreign affairs and international conflicts?

I think it’s just the matter of the living life and reading about politics and international affairs. Those were things that just interested me. There are two kinds of students. The one who are very convinced and know what they want to do. And there are others who don’t often know and feel great insecurity about it: “What I’m going to do?! I have no idea! I should know!” The notions like “I’m going to be a journalist”, “I’m going to focus on international affairs” were not the way it happened to me. I just knew that I want to write. I never had a clear notion that I will be a journalist. And I’ve never thought:”Oh, I’ll specialize in foreign affairs”. In fact I don’t, because I write about a lot of things. 

Did you expect student’s jury will choose your book as the best among all nominated for an award of Richard Kapuscinski? How do you feel about it?

No, I didn’t expect it and I’m honored that students judged my book to be the one that stood out among the number of terrific books. I regret the fact that of the five finalists only one is in English version, which is Kate Boo’s book about India. Another three haven’t been translated into English yet, so I haven’t read them personally. I heard the extract from the winner’s book on a ceremony. It seems to be obviously a very good book. I’m also honored that you have read all of nominated books carefully and argued with one another. That’s good. And once again, as I said I’m touched and honored that you selected mine. I’m very happy. 

You knew Richard Kapuscinski personally. What does it mean to you to be nominated for an award of his name?

There is a special and a sentimental value attached to it. I met him in 1986. We were fairly good friends. I published some of his material in English. It was “The Soccer War” – the story that tells about the war between Salvador and Honduras.

I knew him for a long time, for 20 year. We met together frequently when he was in New York and other places. He was a delightful man, very nice and charming. He liked to tell stories from his travels as did I; he liked to drink and to have a good time. He was very nice to me.

What were you feelings when you heard your book was nominated?

When I heard the news that my book was nominated I was very pleased. I’ve seen to be a kind of rightness about it, because of the connection to Kapuscinski. By the way, he very liked the book about El Mozote. And events in it took place very close to where the Soccer War was taken place. I don’t think I would come to Warsaw for an award ceremony if it wasn’t him.

Did his work teach you something about being a journalist or inspired your texts somehow?

Without doubt I’ve learnt a great deal from his work. I’m not sure, I can point to particular influences but to my mind his works are very valuable for journalists and writers. I called him like he called me – just a writer. I think it’s an easier appellation. He pays very close attention to the particular, even when he often draws general conclusion. He is very good observer of life – it’s tremendously important. He pays a lot of attention not only to his work, but also to forming it. “Shah of Shahs” for example begins with the pile of documents, tapes and photographs and he essentially extracts the story out of those documents as it goes on. He does try to draw from individual events to larger conclusions. I called him last night “a poet of metamorphosis”. So I would say he influenced me a lot.

What’s your favorite Kapuscinski’s book and why?

If I had to pick one book I would probably say that masterpiece is “The Emperor”. I think it’s a classic and it’s a brilliant work. It’s a great book about a power, how it works and how one is keeping it. I’ve read it many times. “Shah of Shahs” is also a very good book from the same period. The next on my list will be “Another Day of Life” and story about the Soccer War. But a lot of his work has not been translated into English. It’s a great pity.

What do you think about decision of jury?

I can congratulate Elisabeth Åsbrinkin in the most enthusiastic terms. I haven’t read her book, because it’s not in English. But the extract that was read on a ceremony was very beautiful. This sort of a word when you get into finalists is great. I don’t want to say anyone could win but basically it’s very unpredictable. One comes on ceremony hoping to win. But on another hand one also knows that it’s one chance in five.

How did you get the idea to write the book “The Massacre of El Mozote”?

It was a commission piece that was originally the article for “The New Yorker”. It was ordered by editor. And then after some time and thoughts the article turned into the book.

What was the hardest thing about the book?

It was a very complicated narrative. The most difficult part was the plotting of the book; being able to come up with the structure that would do justice to the story. The natural climax of the story is the massacre itself. It’s very hard after the scene of a massacre to recover the narrative suspense. Another challenge in the problem is that massacre is only half of a story, the other half is a cover up. It was a difficult problem in a writing it. When I was in Salvador there was a great political instability. Originally I have planned to have a foreground of a book about what was happening in Salvador at the moment I was doing a reporting. But I finally have to cut the foreground part, because it simply would be too much. If I knew from the beginning I was writing a book, not an article, it probably would have different shape. 

In your book you mentioned article „MASSACRE OF HUNDREDS REPORTED IN SALVADOR VILLAGE” by Raymond Bonner. After the article was published Raymond Bonner experienced severe criticism from the advisor to the Secretary of State Thomas O. Enders and from Wall Street Journal. Did you experience similar reactions of government and press after you wrote article on El Mozote massacre? 

I did, but I wouldn’t compare the criticism of El Mozote piece I wrote to the criticism that Ray encountered. He was not only criticized, he actually was withdrawn and came back to the Metro Desk in “The New York Times”. Decision that withdraw him out had a major effect on a Salvador policy, because it brought out of Salvador the most active and talented reporter and the most willing to write stories that in fact criticized US policy.

The criticism in a “Wall Street Journal” that came with the piece I published, criticized the story I was writing about. I’ve got a lot of personal attacks and letters. Including the editor of “The New Your Times” who personally criticized what I wrote. Any way all of this was expected and wasn’t unusual.

Are journalists able to prevent crimes such as massacre at El Mozote by writing reliable articles and books?

I think no. Such articles describe the crime after the facts. By describing such crimes, if it happens repeatedly, it will lessen the possibility that such crimes will happen in the future. One would like to think that. It’s important by its own right that things like these are exposed. It is its own value. It’s worthwhile if it prevents something else. Perpetrators of such crimes usually have very immediate goals. For example, in Salvador the government and the army perceived that they were fighting for their lives ant fighting to survive. Next to that kind of interest the notion of worrying about the future of journalism exposing the crime is relatively trivial.

During the debate „How we should use our power? Iraq and the war on terror” with late Christopher Hitchens you said that Al Qaeda cannot defeat United States but United States can defeat itself by occupying major Arab country and becoming recruitment sergeant for terrorists. Do you think that these words became reality in past years, that the involvement of United States in Middle East conflicts had negative effect of its relations with Arab world?

I think these words came to pass. For American policy the occupation of Iraq was a catastrophe. It was a very foolish thing to do. Now it’s generally admitted by the people who supported the war. I said it repeatedly before the war began, but it makes any difference.

American citizens seem to be tired of the role of world’s policeman. Will this social mood influence foreign policy?

Yes, it is influencing the foreign policy. For example you can see it in a President’s position on Syria. He is spoken out it was drawn so called red lines. Then, after the use of chemical weapons by Assad he exhorted to attack the regime. Than he wanted Congress approve his acting, but it became obviously it wouldn’t. Later he agreed with Russia that the regime must commit putting chemical weapons. Underlining all this chain of decisions - it was the unwillingness of the American public to get involved in a foreign war. So, yes once again, it obviously influences the foreign policy.

What do you think about foreign policy conducted by the administration of a president Barack Obama?

All presidents when come to power have to deal with the situation they find when get to power. And it’s a situation than in part is determined by the predecessor. In a case of Obama more than most he has deal with were the consequences of George W. Bush’s policies. The most notable are the two foreign wars the US were involved when Obama came to office. He very quickly ended the war in Iraq. By the end of this year most of American troops will be bought out of Afghanistan. In a sense there are his two largest achievements – ending two wars. Apart from that, when it comes to policy on terrorism he has been extremely aggressive. In the way it could be describe by administration officials it is the light footprints. Another words, he suppose to the heavy footprint having armies in foreign countries. He’s been killing people using special forces. During Obama administration he’s killed a great number of people. But it’s been done in a way to cause minimum controversy at home. So this policy is designed in some ways not to leave very strong public support. I think such a policy is very riskily. It risks making the situation worse than making it better. I think the main worry is that we have not yet seen how the war on terrorism supposed to end. Its 13 years after the September 11 2001 attacks. And we still see the war on terrorism. It’s been found in a different way with a so called light footprint, but people are still dying.

You write about tortures used in the name of the war on terror. When it comes to human rights violation, is US a part of solution or maybe a part of problem?

Lately it’s been a part of a problem. Since September 11 the US tortured prisoners as a matter of government policy. It was approved by the Department of Justice, they were declared legal. To my mind they are not legal. They were violated the convention against torture, domestic statues against torture etc. The problem is the former president, the former vice-president and other former officials. They don’t call it torture, they called it enhanced interrogation. They admit that they ordered these things done. So we have a hot situation in the US of this kind of legal/illegal and code system in a same time. And a question becomes when you ask about human rights. Is it possible when you’re observing human rights regime? If the previous administration has violated it dramatically and it goes unpunished? So the law is not still strong.

According to the book “The Next 100 Years” by George Friedman the second Cold War begins in 2010s. It’ll involve smaller number of countries and will be shorter than the first one. Do we observe this geopolitical event these days? What can you say about current situation on the East of a Europe?

I think it’s clear that it is a very premature to call the current situation a new Cold War. It’s obvious that there is now a standoff and disagreement between what was the East and the West over Ukraine. The Cold War was four decades hostility between the two sides that was backed up by 40 thousand nuclear weapons. It was a very long struggle that actually broke into hot wars in a periphery including Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Salvador. On the other hand it’s a serious standoff and disagreement over what role Ukraine should play as buffer state between the East and the West. My own feeling is that this will be worked out.

And if you were asked to make a prediction about present situation what it will be like?

I don’t like make predictions, but if I have to do one I would say that there will be a new president elected in Ukraine. I would expect that he would negotiate with the Russians and the West. The obvious solution is that Ukraine agrees to some kind of federalize system where parts of the East have their own power within a larger federal structure. In return Russia stops supporting separatists in the East. The entire situation comes down. And it’s the obvious diplomatic solution to these events. I’m being optimistic about present situation and I’m not who believes that the new Cold War is beginning between Russia and the West. I think that West was foolish actually in pushing NATO as far as it went. If Estonia came under pressure from Russia in the same way that Ukraine has, it will be really a dark side of situation. The US will have a very hard time defending Estonia. To my mind it’s a fact of geography, military and reality. Western policy is not being intelligent when regarding Russia over the last 20 years.’m more optimistic about Ukraine. It may take while for the things I’m talking about to happen. 

Moving away from policy and returning to the subject we - student are going to deal with. Could you reveal a secret of a good journalism?

First of all one need to listen hard, do a great amount of research to understand a situation, talk to people sympathetically, trying understand what they’re saying. Work hard in writing. I would add thinking of Richard Kapuscinski is that you need to enjoy yourself and what you’re doing. Respect people you deal with. Richard was a great enjoyer of what he was doing and he loved his work. It’s very important. And a one more thing on a list of secrets to be a good journalism is to read the best writers. You learn how to be a good writer by reading other writers. So I would say you could do no better than to star with Richard Kapuscinski’s work. 

Mark Danner discusses El Mozote and the career of a journalist with student, Alice Deneka in Warsaw, Poland. 

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