Transcript: Front Lines

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SOUND OF HUMAN WALKING ON GRAVEL (from the BBC open sound archive)

NOAH RICHLER (HOST): A warning: some details of this Walrus podcast are very graphic, and in the next couple of minutes, particularly so.

LOUIE PALU: So it was 2006, I was in Kandahar covering the war, I was a staff photographer at the Globe and Mail, I was working with Christie Blatchford at the time. And we arrived at the scene, and immediately I got out and had my hands in the air, ’cause there was a security cordon of soldiers around it and you don’t want to get shot, ’cause cameras can be mistaken for guns. And they waved me forward, and as I walked up, I noticed all of the ground there, there were little bits of flesh, like thousands of pieces of flesh, and little bits of white bone, like shiny, white bone everywhere. As we got closer, I could see that there was a dead body, a whole dead body, kind of charred and burned. As we got closer, there were bigger and bigger pieces of what I guess was the suicide bomber.

NOAH RICHLER: Hello and welcome to Pivot, the show that considers those watershed moments where new circumstances in our lives compel us to reimagine ourselves. The pivot turns in all sorts of ways. Maybe you’ve lost a job or been fundamentally changed by the one you have. Maybe sickness, or impending death, has altered the way you see the world. Maybe you’ve finally been able to reveal that you’re not the person others—or even you yourself—assumed you were. Maybe you’re one of the more than 40,000 Canadian soldiers who served during the war in Afghanistan. Or perhaps, like Louie Palu, you were a part of the media charged with reporting it.

LOUIE PALU: The suicide bombing I covered in Kandahar was definitely a watershed moment, but I think that the initial shock and the overwhelming trauma was so much for my mind to deal with. I mean, it’s a terrorist attack, it’s called a terrorist attack ’cause it terrorizes you. And I think it probably took me years to really understand that watershed moment.

NOAH RICHLER: Italian Canadian Louie Palu, fifty now, is one of the best documentary photographers of the modern era. The images of his series The Fighting Season, The Void of War, and Garmsir Marines are an extraordinary record of the war in Afghanistan and have been exhibited at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, in numerous galleries in the United States, as well as in the pages of The Walrus, the Globe and Mail, and many other periodicals and newspapers in Canada and abroad. Louie has been a Guggenheim and Harry Ransom fellow, has been award two Pulitzer Center grants, and is currently on assignment for National Geographic magazine documenting the changing geopolitical situation of the circumpolar Arctic.

The portraits Palu gathered of Afghan, American, and Canadian fighters operating in 2006 in the Helmand and Kandahar districts of Afghanistan are harrowing and, often, strangely beautiful—as in his photograph of a soldier enveloped in a cloud of dust following the detonation of an improvised explosive device. Mira Mexico, Palu’s photographs from the troubled Mexican-US border region, are just as disturbing and just as likely to rest in the memory for their odd beauty. A photograph of a gang member, drug addict, and repeat offender whose tattooed chest is a tapestry of the outlaw’s life comes to mind.

The work we do is the common thread—whether as soldiers, criminal desperadoes, or as the Northern Ontario miners brilliantly portrayed in an early exhibition, Cage Call, later a book.

Cage Call was the series that made Palu; and Kandahar the moment that changed him.

LOUIE PALU: It definitely was, but it took quite a bit of time to manifest itself in a way that I actually truly understood how it changed me and where it sent me on a journey to, sort of, face the demons in my life that I’d kind of been trying to understand since I was a child.

NOAH RICHLER: So, what is the immediate lesson of encountering ourselves as body parts? It’s very hard to understand, it seems to me, but I’m only looking at the photographs—you’re one step closer.

LOUIE PALU: Yeah, I think what happens is, we get, when you see body parts, the living, thinking, laughing, loving spirits that we all are to each other, especially when you love someone, someone special to you, is turned into, it’s like Medusa, you’re turned to stone, it’s like it’s gone. And I think that’s what sort of anyone, at least in my experience, what I’ve heard from, and my own, that’s what terrorist attacks do, they send you on this infinite circle of asking why, trying to understand, and there is no understanding it.

NOAH RICHLER: Does it make it easier if the body belonged to a stranger, rather than say your father or mine?

LOUIE PALU: Yes, because I think that we all have some connection, even at the smallest level. If someone’s hurt, we will want to help. If we see someone lying on the street, we want to help. And I think that that destroys the very core at which we can live and survive every day, because we want to see, empathize with everybody else, and understand ourselves.

“Somewhere in the Desert” (a poem by Benjamin Hertwig, read by Hertwig himself)

The sergeant drives you to
the front of the firefight like
a dad dropping you off
on the first of school

a chance for you to pop your combat cherry

he says as you flip
off safe, fire a few
rounds at the mud wall
and hope for a hooded
taliban target to appear
a head flashes past window
frames; you fire a few more.
the sergeant slaps you
on the back and smiles.

that a boy, he grins, get right into it good.

CHRISTIE BLATCHFORD: I’m Christie Blatchford. I’m an old journalist who covers a lot of mass-casualty events.

VINCENT LAM: I’m Vincent Lam, I’m a writer, and I’m also an addictions-medicine physician. I run a place called Coderix Medical Clinic.

NOAH RICHLER: We attach a lot of drama to the reporting of those at the front lines—and with good reason. According to the International Federation of Journalists, in the first five months of 2018 alone, thirty-eight media personnel—eleven of them in Afghanistan—were killed in targeted attacks or crossfire. Which is why I asked Christie Blatchford, who accompanied Louie Palu on his first Afghanistan sortie, but also the Toronto surgeon and addictions expert Dr. Vincent Lam, to pitch in and shed light on the sort of encounter that most of us, barring catastrophe, are able to avoid until natural causes bring mortality on.

CHRISTIE BLATCHFORD: Most journalists who don’t cover wars only experience, sort of, second-hand trauma—most of my job is that second-hand observation—very little of it is on the actual front lines. Journalists, or, at least, I certainly never had any kind of training for front line war reporting, and my, sort of, awakening came when, after the first night of what turned out to be a three-day gun fight with the Princess Patricia’s with whom I was embedded in Afghanistan…I think we arrived at our little place where we were going to stay for the night, and the gunfire stopped at about two in the morning, and the next morning at dawn, the soldiers got up to go out again and fight some more, and I decided that I would stay in the LAV (the light armoured vehicle), and I stayed there for eight hours by myself. I told them I was going to make some notes on the night before. Later, when I looked at my notebook, I didn’t make a single note, and I just sat there, I think, in shock, for eight hours, the entire time. And I managed to summon up my courage to go out with them the next day, but it took me a full working day to kind of absorb what I had seen and been through and then get on with it.

NOAH RICHLER: And does the shock occur more than once?

CHRISTIE BLATCHFORD: Oh yes, oh yes. The next day it occurred again in a gun fight in a grape field, and a young Canadian soldier named Tony Benecca was actually killed, and I wasn’t in the grape hut where he was killed, but I followed the soldiers who carried him out on a black rubbery stretcher, so I was literally stepping in the young soldier’s blood following the stretcher, and shortly before that day, before he was shot, I was crouched down with soldiers, mostly Afghan soldiers on a little mud wall, and they were shooting at the Taliban and we were being shot back at, and I was suddenly so terrified that I had what in soldier’s parlance is called a “battle crap,” and Vincent will know what that means—it’s when you’re so terrified that all of your body’s attention is directed at keeping you scared and alert and filled with adrenalin, and your digestive processes and everything else shuts down, so it was an altogether mortifying and terrifying experience.

NOAH RICHLER: Vincent Lam.

VINCENT LAM: Just hearing it, I think I could feel my own chest kind of tense up and my own adrenalin start to go a bit, purely through the imagination of this experience. And I think this is something that we really need to understand as part of the human experience. Our minds are fundamentally designed to be survival mechanisms, and they’re meant to keep us from getting killed, and they evolved during a time where it was far more possible to get killed on a routine basis, and so reactions include things like a hyper alertness as well as a shutting down of other systems and other parts of the mind.

NOAH RICHLER: Is part of that survival mechanism practiced in the fact of doing your job?

CHRISTIE BLATCHFORD: Sure, when I was running behind this stretcher and a young guy was dying…though I didn’t know at the time he was dying, I certainly knew he was hurt, and I was able to do my job. I remember observing, for instance, that I was walking or running in his blood…and being kind of freaked out by it, but I was nonetheless observing it, and I got back to the base camp and as soon as the embargo which exists and these protocols that exist in these things, I was writing and filing my story, and you know, over the ensuing weeks that I was in Kandahar, I think I got better at dealing with the great shock of it.

VINCENT LAM: I think what is really interesting in terms of the way we think about trauma and when we think about the potential for after-effects of trauma and for things like post-traumatic stress disorder, one of the real differentiators might be whether someone can do something within that situation. Whether someone has some sort of purpose, some sort of meaning.
And this is to say, if someone is in some sort of incredibly traumatic circumstance and has nothing to do but be immobile and helpless, this is a very different experience than if someone is in a horrible experience, for instance, as a journalist, for instance, as a doctor, but has a task, has a purpose, has a meaning, and so hearing you talk about the thing that came next, Christie, I thought it was very interesting that after a period of time you were able to file stories, go on, do your job. It’s probably very good for the doctor’s mental health to have purpose and to have a thing to do within this situation.

CHRISTIE BLATCHFORD: I agree completely. I think it’s the saving grace, I think it is the thing that allows you to kind of recover and stuff is this sense of purpose, and it’s much harder to find and to rationalize as a journalist than I imagine anyway, ’cause a doctor, it’s clear, you do have a purpose, you’re either there to, you’re helping the person, you’re trying your best to ameliorate something awful, and for journalists, it’s much trickier to rationalize. Because not always are you doing something good—you can lie to yourself and say you’re doing something good, but not always are you, and the trick is to find the balance between doing your job and causing no harm. I often think that “do no harm” should also be the mantra for journalists in those kinds of situations.

NOAH RICHLER: Louie Palu.

LOUIE PALU: Phenomenal Canadian filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal was my mentor, and she started pointing me towards sort of doors in my mind, so to speak, to really explore and ask that hard question: why I kept covering the war, why I went to the front, why did I go there, why did I go there over and over and over again. And she really helped me understand something I’ve been struggling to understand since my childhood. I had a screening of a film, and it was in Rochester, at the Rochester Institute of Technology, and I’d been struggling with this moment that came back to life in my mind. We landed with the Medevac helicopter in a field, and I followed the medic, as I usually do, there’s bullets flying, it’s very loud. It’s so nice when it’s quiet right now, but at the moment you’re just distracted by so many things. We ran up to this group of American soldiers, and there was a soldier on the ground, he’s stepped on a mine, his foot was missing from the knee down. Several soldiers were around him with guns for security, and his sergeant was standing over him, and he looked over at me and said, “Why the fuck are you taking pictures?” And I sat there, I didn’t know what to say. And the medic grabbed them and said, “Shut the fuck up and focus on casualty.” And then he just ignored me, and I kept taking photographs. At the time, I was like, “Hey, I’m doing my job, I know I’m supposed to be here, I’m with the medic,” but I felt like I really intruded. And I got back in the helicopter and I didn’t think about it, and then years later, I felt this guilt—I wish I could find this guy and apologize. I told this story, and there were veterans in the crowd there, at that screening in Rochester, and they said, “Hey, it’s okay man. He was just having a moment, it’s okay.” And this weight lifted off me. This guilt I’d been carrying around. Because we do sometimes, in our energy, our enthusiasm to tell stories and share people’s experiences, we do sometimes go into a place where we don’t what the direction is, we don’t know how far in we’ve gone.

NOAH RICHLER: Was there a moment at which you yourself, Louie, began to feel this stuff personally?

LOUIE PALU: Yeah, around 2010, the pace at which I was witnessing these things went beyond my capacity psychologically to process it all, you know. I think we did five, then, fifteen Medevac missions a day, and I covered them over and over, and it’s just—it’s kind of like you’re running on a treadmill and someone’s turning up the speed on you and you can’t keep up with it and you fall off, and I think it took many years for me to process it.

NOAH RICHLER: At the time, you were recording your thoughts in notes, in Moleskine journals, you wrote down a series of axioms here and there, and in a way, they speak to me of needing to cope before you’ve actually processed, so for instance, and some of these are cited in Kandahar Journals, you say, “acknowledge the danger and work,” “relax and get the shot,” “look beyond the literal.” When did these thoughts occur to you, and were they, as I say, ways of coping?

LOUIE PALU: Yeah, so what happened is my notebook started out as just notebooks for captions, as a journalist, the who, what, when, where, how of all photographs. I started losing the capacity to actually take pictures…like, my mind had to turn so many things off to process the trauma was witnessing every day.

NOAH RICHLER: And you were in the field?

LOUIE PALU: I’m in the field and I had to write down, okay, this is how you take pictures, acknowledge the danger, I had a checklist every morning I would say in my mind. Sometimes, the Medevac call came in the middle of the night. The radio would go off, and you’d be half asleep, but I had a little checklist, I would look at it and I’d be like “Louie, focus,” because what happens is, as you are more and more traumatized, your mind starts to turn things off that you don’t need to survive. Like when I got back from the war, at one point I didn’t even recognize traffic signals, I used to just walk into the street ’cause my mind was so focused on dealing with the trauma every day.

NOAH RICHLER: And you were sorting a narrative to your own experience.

LOUIE PALU: Yeah, and I think everybody’s carrying a trauma from somewhere. Some are bigger, some are smaller, but it’s all relative and we’re all feeling it. That makes us one whole community, a common humanity.

NOAH RICHLER: So, what is it in you, that you imagine has driven you towards this work?

LOUIE PALU: There are two realizations that came out of making the film Kandahar Journals, the first one was that my parents’ experience in the Second World War—

NOAH RICHLER: your father Giuseppe?

LOUIE PALU: My father, Giuseppe, immigrated from Italy in the ’60s, he was a stonemason, and my mother was a seamstress, and they both came in the ’60s with my sister, who was born in Italy. Their experiences were constantly retold, oral history-wise, at the kitchen table. And there were a number of experiences, including my father witnessing his father being arrested at gunpoint—imagine being four years old and having a gun pointed at you, watching your father being taken away by soldiers. And that happened, German soldiers came looking for my grandfather, and took him away. And I think that that trauma is being passed on to me, but I was too young to actually process it.

My mum always had this fear— like, they are going to come for you, and it’s back to the Second World War. Don’t talk, the Nazis are coming. And it’s incredible how, like I said earlier, traumas are passed on. It’s these small little mannerisms like, “are you sure you can do that? You could get in trouble. You could get arrested.” She’s not thinking of anything that’s criminal, she’s thinking that the government, that the Nazis are gonna come for you again.

NOAH RICHLER: I wonder if it’s possible to walk away from some of the things you’ve seen, or if there’s some cumulative effect that’s hard to evade.

LOUIE PALU: I think it’s possible to walk away from things, but I don’t think anybody is a complete person unless they’ve experienced loss. And I have to say the most traumatic moment of my life was the loss of my father, when my dad passed away. And I think loss is important for us to all face and experience, because it can’t all be the other side. It can’t be all winning and rainbows and rose-coloured glasses. We’re all going to come to a point in life where we face something that is excruciating.

‘“July 22, 2006,” by Benjamin Hertwig, read by Hertwig

the afghan soldier transfixed by his feet,
staring, as if his eyes could put the blood
back in. his partug torn, blood-slick and beet
red. he calls out to someone; walls of mud
surround him. arterial blood, a flood
of red life. you touch his head; he’s pretty
much dead already. eyes closing, the bud
of poppy blooms, cut. leave this city.
your short war is over; do not pity
the dead. buy yourself a new car – or tell
the truth. tales of how stupid and shitty
war is. how you pissed yourself, how he fell.
how in your dreams his face floats in motion:
fish flesh on the bottom of the ocean.

VINCENT LAM: To a certain degree whether someone is going to develop PTSD or not probably is multi-factorial.

NOAH RICHLER: Vincent Lam.

VINCENT LAM: So we know, for instance, that about fifteen percent of Vietnam vets, and by that I mean American combatants in Vietnam, developed PTSD. We can say that some will develop PTSD, a lot of that might have to do with their role in the situation. A lot of that might have to do with patterns in terms of coping with internal experience, which were formed long before a specific traumatic event, meaning which were developed and formed in childhood.

NOAH RICHLER: Christie Blatchford.

CHRISTIE BLATCHFORD: Well, I think one of the through lines for me would be my late mother, who was an alcoholic and very neurotic, very afraid of things, very stymied, and felt very stymied, I think, by the time she was born into, and all of that. Anyway, because she was so afraid of things, and I mean crowded movie theatres, subways, elevators, airplanes, et cetera. I think, on some subconscious level, I determined early that I would try not to be afraid of things, and if I was afraid, I would just do them anyway.

VINCENT LAM: The thing which really carries trauma and its reaction from what we call an acute stress reaction, which is normal [agreement from Christie] through to, at the far end of the spectrum, post-traumatic stress disorder, where someone’s life is severely affected from their own reactions to trauma, a year later, two years later, you know, at a distance…the crux of it is really events in the past robbing people of their ability to exist in the present.

CHRISTIE BLATCHFORD: Yeah. I agree.

LOUIE PALU: Sometimes, you need to go where the demons are to understand your own. That doesn’t mean you need be afraid of them, but you gotta understand them and respect what they are, and everybody’s got something. And I think going to some of these war zones and coming back to my mom, I really understood my strengths and my weaknesses, and the areas of my soul that needed fixing or needed exploring or healing. Just having this conversation is a part of that healing.

NOAH RICHLER: Don’t know any way but to ask this directly: do you think you have any form of post-traumatic stress disorder? PTSD?

LOUIE PALU: It’s possible. I’ve never had my therapist say, “You have PTSD.” Definitely been traumatized. I guess part of me is afraid to say, “Yes, I have PTSD,” but I’ve never been formally diagnosed.

NOAH RICHLER: Would you know it if you had it?

LOUIE PALU: I have some friends who definitely have it, it’s diagnosed. And I don’t have them anymore, but I used to have anxiety attacks where I would hyperventilate in certain situations and not being able to breathe, or. Just sort of, you know, when I sit in a restaurant, I like to have my back to the wall so I can kinda see where everything is.

NOAH RICHLER: Can you imagine putting your camera down and not taking photos anymore?

LOUIE PALU: No. I mean, I think it always kind of my bridge to be able to connect to people.

NOAH RICHLER: Do you think your photographing gets in the way sometimes of your human bonds?

LOUIE PALU: No. No, the great thing about the camera is to take the kind of photos I take, I have to go out. I think the first thing that the camera got me to do when I was a teenager was, I was interested in homelessness. ‘Cause not long after the Second World War, my father and grandfather were homeless. That definitely is something that I wanted to understand. I don’t think there’s a single person out there in this world that doesn’t want to understand where they come from.

NOAH RICHLER: In a way, you’re working towards two ideas. One is your immediate work, the news, let’s call it that, but you also have this archival opportunity, you’re providing photos, in a sense, to history. Does that help?

LOUIE PALU: It does. I just feel that photographs or visuals are so important. It’s the foundation of the creation of our identity and how we see ourselves. That archival way of looking at things is also a little therapy for me. By going deep and photographing something for a long time, it helps me understand things, and there were a lot of things that I needed to, I didn’t realize I needed to, deal with, and the camera was sort of therapy for myself.

And what it did do is it put in my mind that I carry a very big responsibility. There were many moments where I didn’t take photos, and probably the most heartbreaking moment of my life where I chose not to take photographs is when I went to an orphanage in Kabul, and while we were there talking to the administrator about getting access, this father had walked in very close to us and said that he was poor and he started crying and he couldn’t afford to keep his children anymore and he was going to leave his children there. His children were wrapped around his legs, begging him to not leave them there, and he started crying, and he had to tear them off his legs and walk away. It was so heartbreaking, there was no way I could take photographs. So I knew I’d have moments where I did not take photographs, where it was something that was for me personally I could not intrude on.

NOAH RICHLER: So there are limits, there are moments, there are things that perhaps you decided not to do.

LOUIE PALU: There are a lot of debates about what kind of photographs we show. And I can say that sometimes the finger-pointing comes from people who really have not seen war enough, who don’t understand the photos you are seeing, if the scale is one being not so bad, ten being very gruesome, publishable photos probably never pass a five. Like, there’s way worse stuff that is edited, there is a process. There are big discussions about these things. They aren’t just randomly sensationally thrown on a printed page or online. And sometimes we should feel uncomfortable.

NOAH RICHLER: In extracts from the moleskin Kandahar journals he shared, Louie Palu asks, “What will I feel like when I get home? I feel as though I have moved over into a new place,” but he also writes, “I stare at the stars, I hope they could take me away from here,” and “FUCK THIS PLACE.” There’s the sense that the conflict was too much, something he would have preferred not to return to, but the border of Mexico and the United States was the stuff of his next project—and of violence he told me was worse. Louie’s in the Arctic now, documenting the changing geopolitical situation of the circumpolar region. There was the suggestion of a pivot, but he’s still drawn to conflict, the thing he cannot turn away from.

I’m Noah Richler, and you’ve been listening to “Front Line,” the first episode of the podcast series Pivot produced by Angela Misri and Judy Ziyi Gu of The Walrus and available at thewalrus.ca/podcasts.

The poems you’ve been hearing are by Benjamin Hertwig, a former member of the Canadian Armed Forces who completed one tour in Afghanistan in 2006. His marvellous collection Slow War is published by McGill-Queens University Press. Thank you Benjamin Hertwig for your permission to use the poems and for reading them.

To Charles Spearin for the music, to Christie Blatchford of the National Post, and doctor and author Vincent Lam, and, of course, to Louie Palu, whose photographs you can see on his website, louiepalu.com.

Thanks for listening.