Expanding the limits of war reporting:
A discussion on Outside the Wire: The War in Afghanistan in the Words of Its Participants

Edited by Kevin Patterson and Jane Warren

Review by Elecia Chrunik, March 2008

The stories told by journalists embedded in war zones are invaluable, but cannot paint a complete picture of any war because they are mediated by constraints. They provide as clear and true a picture as possible but remain limited by their role as journalists; they are observers and conveyers, not soldiers or war workers with first hand accounts of the action and the atrocities.

Outside the Wire uncovers the stories and narratives of those whose voices are often represented but seldom heard first hand. Kevin Patterson, MD, and Jane Warren have gathered 17 stories and reflections from doctors, soldiers and aid workers that have lived in and worked through the war in Afghanistan — those who empty their guns on the enemy, who exchange cultural values behind closed doors and who manage emotions and destruction only war can cause.

Outside the Wire broadens the horizons of traditional journalism by including letters home and diary entries that capture the war’s subtleties. Included are emailed letters from Captain Nicola Goddard written only a few weeks before she was killed on duty. Her account of the ceremonies to say goodbye to fallen American and Canadian soldiers hauntingly foreshadows her own fate, though her commitment to the mission remains firm. “There is nowhere else I’d rather be right now,” she writes.

The world’s high-speed technological capacity is creating communities of entrenched citizen journalists who are redefining what journalism means and the role it should play. It is no longer seen as enough to have one correspondent relay the news from as close to the front lines as possible. Audiences demand real-time information from a variety of voices because they are growing accustomed to accessing information from almost anywhere, anytime.

Traditional ethical journalistic codes must be reconsidered (“Should we run it?”) when a cell phone captures a beheading and the image is posted on YouTube. But when media are censored, like in the current situation in Tibet, embedded bloggers – often regular citizens – might be the most reliable source of information. They become the de facto journalists.

Dr. Patterson, along with Outside the Wire contributors Maureen Mayhew, MD, and Corporal Gordon Whitton recently assembled to read passages and answer questions at the UBC School of Journalism

It is clear, they said, that within the Canadian dialogue there is a disconnect between public acceptance and understanding of the mission in Afghanistan and the intentions and motivations of the people involved.

“What [the book] does for citizens – showing the conditions we are operating in – is not a critical aspect but a more visceral account of how people handle things on a daily basis,” said Corporal Whitton.

The book’s significance lies in providing Canadians with the knowledge to make informed decisions about supporting the troops based on the human aspects of the war, said Dr. Patterson. “People involved in Afghanistan have a lingering frustration about the ambivalent sense of detachment from a lot of Canadians.

Outside the Wire hopes to fill the gap created by the lack of journalists outside of the main city centers and war hot spots. “Where are the journalists interviewing Taliban and people living in the country side?” asked Dr. Kennedy.

Kennedy also addressed what he considers to be the weakness of the book, that there are no Afghan voices. “We tried to approach the idea but it was met with little success. There is a reluctance to speak out there.”

The absence of Afghan voices is partly bridged by accounts from Dr. Mayhew. She has been to Afghanistan four times as a physician. Her first trip was during the Taliban rule. Her experiences shed light on cultural differences that are often misconstrued in western media.

She writes about living in a small village. “Surprisingly, women in rural areas appeared to have more freedom than their city counterparts. I lived in Bala Morghab, a village of with a population of five thousand… they chatted animatedly, burka covers flipped up to expose their faces. When men passed, the face screens came down and the laughter vanished. Some women continued talking while covering and uncovering their faces numerous times, as if it were a game. Frequently when we conversed, I felt at a disadvantage because women in burkas could read my face, whereas my view of their faces was limited to two dark spots, hidden eyes.”

As a doctor and a friend to many Afghan women, Dr. Mayhew is able to draw from her experiences at weddings and afternoon teas to relate a complex picture of the women there. It is a multifaceted view that is often neglected in mainstream western media and culture.

“There are many different types of women,” she said. “Some are happy and some much better off if they are out of the situation. But some were happy with the situation as it was. Even though rights are not as how we would want, many women have a happy and functional life.”

It is just one example of how these highly personal stories serve the Canadian public in a way that mainstream and traditional media cannot. There is no doubt that journalists do a great public service. They provide facts and stories that are necessary for those back home to engage in an informed dialogue about the war.

But there is often a lack of interest or understanding on this side of the world about why Canada has troops in Afghanistan and whether or not it is a worthwhile mission. Outside the Wire functions to further the exchange of ideas by presenting the nuances and gradations, the complexities that make war so contentious in the first place.

According to the three panelists who have immediate sensory experience to base their opinions on, it is definitely a worthwhile mission. All three are in support of troops deployed there and see a healthy future in Afghanistan as something Canadians will one day be proud of helping achieve.

Outside the Wire expands the traditional role of journalism’s public service. It shows the pride and determination of those on the front lines while simultaneously revealing their doubts and fears. But the book’s goal to educate the public on all aspects of a war is its most valuable contribution.


Elecia Chrunik is a Vancouver-based writer and graduate student at the UBC School of Journalism

Previous reviews
Digging Deeper
By Robert Cribb, Dean Jobb, David McKie, Fred Vallance-Jones
Review by Kendyl Salcito, June 2006

Gender, Conflict & Journalism
By Fiona Lloyd and Ross Howard
Review by Carolynne Burkholder, April 2006

Media Law for Canadian Journalists
By Dean Jobb
Review by Lisa Taylor, February 2006

Film “Capote ”Raises Disturbing Ethical Questions
By Peter Klein, January 2006

Review of two books by Kendyl Salcito
: Morals and the Media (Nick Russell, UBC Press) and Black, White and Grey: Ethics in South African Journalism (Franz Kruger, Cape Town)

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