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Into the Inferno, with Notebook

 
Writer Mark Danner is at his best when the world is doing its worst.

Ragtop down, a spectacular view of San Francisco Bay and the city below suddenly opens up for two seconds as we tear around another bend; Grizzly Peak Boulevard zigzags along the Berkeley hilltops in tight S-curves that, for the passenger, rapidly alternate breathtaking panoramas with sheer rock escarpments. Then we close in on a car poking along at 35, and behind the wheel of his convertible, Mark Danner ’80 grows restive. To properly enjoy a spin on Grizzly Peak, he insists, you have to move along at a minimum of 50 mph. We are held under that rate, but passing on this winding two-lane road, Danner notes, "is suicidal. I would never do it." He grins before adding, "With a passenger."

Danner may have an appetite for risks with a serious undertow—he has also done 50 mph down this road (where he lives) on a bicycle, sans helmet ("I’m working on that," he says)—yet, in a well-traveled life that has reached some of the world’s most searing hot spots, he has emerged unscathed, at least so far. A little more than a year ago, Danner was in Iraq; he has spent stretches in Haiti since the 1980s, and reported from Sarajevo during the siege there in the 1990s. His risky trips have produced revelatory accounts of horrific deeds that powerful people with a penchant for violence would often prefer to keep hidden.

One example is his newest book, Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror. This volume reproduces several U.S. government reports on Abu Ghraib, together with Danner’s New York Review of Books (NYRB) pieces, in-depth analyses "in which the reader has the greatest respect for the author’s moral voice," says Dave Eggers, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and Danner’s colleague on the Graduate School of Journalism (GSJ) faculty at the University of California at Berkeley. "Mark has a way of delaminating, stripping back the veneer, layer by layer, from things people don’t want to pay attention to," says Orville Schell ’62, dean of the school. "He goes right to the festering wound. This is something television does not do very well—they want to rouge it all up."

In Torture and Truth, Danner unblinkingly documents several forms of torture that U.S. forces have used on detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. He cites a Red Cross report describing the harsh dragnet operations that Coalition forces conducted in Baghdad, rounding up thousands of Iraqi civilians who might be part of the insurgency:"Arresting authorities entered houses usually after dark, breaking down doors, waking up residents roughly, yelling orders, forcing family members into one room under military guard…pushing people around, insulting, taking aim with rifles, punching and kicking and striking with rifles." Soon thereafter, in another report, "…one comes upon this quiet little sentence," Danner writes, which indicates that certain Coalition military-intelligence officers estimated that "…between 70 percent and 90 percent of the persons deprived of their liberty in Iraq had been arrested by mistake [emphasis added]." This provokes him to wonder "…which of the naked, twisted bodies [in Abu Ghraib photos] that television viewers and newspaper readers around the world have been gazing at these last weeks were among them?"

Danner urges his readers to consider the consequences of such operations. "In fighting a guerrilla war, the essential weapon is not tanks or helicopters but intelligence, and the single essential tool to obtain it is reliable political support among the population. In such a war, arresting and imprisoning thousands of civilians in murkily defined ‘cordon and capture’ raids is a blatantly self-defeating tactic, and an occupying army’s resort to it means not only that the occupier lacks the political support necessary to find and destroy the insurgents but that it has been forced by the insurgents to adopt tactics that will further lessen that support and create still more insurgents. It is, in short, a strategy of desperation and, in the end, a strategy of weakness."

On a more concrete level, his description of the Abu Ghraib prison is vivid: "…a besieged, sweltering, stinking hell-hole under daily mortar attack that lacked interpreters, interrogators, guards, detainee uniforms, and just about everything else, including edible food, and that, at its height, was staggering under an impossible prisoner-to-guard ratio of seventy-five-to-one…." Furthermore, there were other such sites; beginning in late 2001, "…the United States gradually built a network of secret and semisecret prisons in Bagram [air force base] and Kandahar, Afghanistan; Guantánamo, Cuba; Qatar and Diego Garcia, as well as Abu Ghraib and Camp Cropper, Iraq…."

With this backdrop, in one dense paragraph, Danner summarizes the linkages between the torturers in the prisons and the policymakers safely distant in Washington:

It has long since become clear that President Bush and his highest officials, as they confronted the world on September 11, 2001, and in the days after, made a series of decisions about methods of warfare and interrogation that General Aussaresses [a French general who oversaw torture during the Algerian War], the practical soldier, would have well understood. The effect of those decisions—among them the decision to imprison indefinitely those seized in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the war on terror, the decision to designate those prisoners as "unlawful combatants" and to withold from them the protections of the Geneva Convention, and finally the decision to employ "high pressure methods" to extract "actionable intelligence" from them—was officially to transform the United States from a nation that did not torture to one that did.

Later, he poses a searching question: "It has become a cliché of the Global War on Terror—the GWOT, as these reports style it—that at a certain point, if the United States betrays its fundamental principles in the cause of fighting terror, then ‘the terrorists will have won.’ The image of the Hooded Man, now known the world over, raises a stark question: Is it possible that that moment of defeat could come and go, and we will never know it?"

The brutal practices in question included "water-boarding," for which Danner offers a description recounted by a prisoner who was tortured during the Algerian War in the 1950s by French police and soldiers:

Then they laid me on a bench, flat on my stomach, head extending into the air, and tied my arms against my body with cords. Again the same question, which I refused to answer. By tilting the bench very slowly, they dipped my head into a basin filled with stinking liquid—dirty water and urine, probably. I was aware of the gurgling liquid reaching my mouth, then of a dull rumbling in my ears and a tingling in my nose.

"You asked for a drink—take all you want."

The first time I did drink, trying to appease an insupportable thirst. I wanted to vomit immediately.

"He’s puking, the bastard."

And my head was pushed back into the basin….

From time to time one of them would sit on my back and bear down on my thighs. I could hear the water I threw up fall back into the basin. Then the torture would continue.

The quotation is from The Gangrene, a 1960 book by seven Algerian prisoners, translated from the French by NYRB cofounder Robert Silvers. Tapping such historical sources helps set Danner’s work apart from more conventional investigative reporting. "There’s an area that falls somewhere between the world of academic scholarship and journalism, where thoughtful writing, long-form journalism, documentary research, and essayistic style all merge," says Schell. "That, to me, is the most interesting, hopeful, and exciting area of journalism. Mark has staked out this territory as where he wants to operate. He will go to Iraq or Haiti to report on events, but he’ll also sit at home for a more slow-motion, echo-chamber consideration of books, documents, history, literature, philosophy, poetry. Unfortunately, very few media outlets esteem, cultivate, and publish such writers. The New Yorker does, and the New York Review of Books does it par excellence."

Those two periodicals have published the bulk of Danner’s work. His relationship with the NYRB extends back to his early twenties, and he became a staff writer at the New Yorker in 1990, just a few days after his three-part series in that magazine on the upheavals in Haiti won the 1990 National Magazine Award for reporting. These venues allow Danner enough working space to explain the historical forces that drive current events. "I’ve always thought that history is particularly critical to having a clear understanding of a conflict," he says. "It allows you to anticipate what’s about to happen in a place like Haiti or Iraq. The Iraqis, for example, are very aware of the revolt under the British in 1920 and 1921. One could almost say that history times geography equals politics."

History and geography certainly informed Danner’s investigative report on a ruthless 1981 slaughter in the mountains of El Salvador. For only the second time in its history (the first was John Hersey’s Hiroshima report of August 31, 1946), the New Yorker devoted an entire issue (December 6, 1993) to one article, "The Truth of El Mozote." In this piece, Danner provided a chillingly explicit documentation of a massacre in which U.S.-trained Salvadoran troops murdered nearly a thousand peasants, including children and even infants, in a horrifying atrocity whose reality the Reagan administration steadfastly denied.

To most readers, Danner’s monograph settled the issue. "Once in a rare while a writer re-examines a debated episode of recent history with such thoroughness and integrity that the truth can no longer be in doubt," wrote Anthony Lewis ’48, Nf ’57, in a 1993 New York Times article. "After the Danner report, no rational person can doubt that Salvadoran Government forces carried out a massacre." Christopher Lehmann-Haupt’s Times review of Danner’s subsequent book, The Massacre at El Mozote: A Parable of the Cold War noted that "[T]his account is agonizing to read and is redeemed only by the clarity of perspective the author brings to it. You struggle to understand both the brutality of the soldiers and the suffering of the victims, and feel as if you are staring into the bowels of hell. "

Time and again, Danner has explored those hellish depths with lucid, unflinching observation of savage realities. His accounts focus on war, violence, and power, including American power abroad. Danner explains why such narratives attract him by quoting onetime Haitian president Leslie Manigat: "Violence strips naked the body of a society, the better to place the stethoscope and hear the life beneath the skin." Danner uses this statement as a kind of touchstone, and elaborates: "During times of violent conflict, you see the forces in a society nakedly struggling with one another—who has power, who is trying to get power, and the means they use to try to take it."

And yes, reporting on such confrontations is hazardous duty. In Haiti in 1987, "…we slowed at a roadblock of tree trunks and cinderblocks and old car parts and a crowd of drunken peasants appeared from nowhere and dragged us from the car," Danner wrote later. "The rabble of men with machetes engulfed us, churning and shouting; we argued, pleaded, holding our press cards before us like pitiful shields. Then, after a moment’s pause, the scene turned very dark: the tough old man closest to me, small, leathery-faced, narrow-eyed, hissed, ‘Kommunis!’" Today, Danner reflects that "these were people who had been chopping up other Haitians all week" while he and his media colleagues recorded the violence; even in the moment of crisis, he recognized the ironical overlay and wondered if "it was all a bit too…pat, this story of reporters hacked to pieces by their own story." But luck intervened: with perfect timing, a wealthy, light-skinned Haitian arrived in a four-wheel-drive vehicle and ordered the mob to disperse—which it did, in some ways compounding the irony.

"You do what you can not to take stupid risks," Danner says. "And when you get into a dangerous situation, you try to behave intelligently and stay calm. I do worry sometimes that I may have used up my nine lives."

 

If so, Danner is living the tenth one in style. He divides his time between the San Francisco Bay area, where, for the past five years, he has rented the Berkeley house of his longtime friend, the late Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet Czeslaw Miloscz, and New York City, where he owns two adjoining co-ops on the Upper West Side. (He rents one, and lives in the other when in town.) Danner has never married, a fact partly explained by his bicoastal lifestyle and his penchant for traveling to hellholes around the world for extended periods. But he has a wide and sociable acquaintance. "Mark is a treasure," says writer and film actor Peter Coyote, who is both a friend and avid reader of Danner. "He’s got a bon vivant jolliness. Mark doesn’t seem tarnished or frayed by that which he has rubbed up against. It’s actually a great human achievement: showing that it’s possible to do your work in the world, no matter how grim it may be, and do it with swing, a swagger, and a great smile."

In Berkeley, deer congregate in the sloping yard of Miloscz’s stucco cottage, which has a fieldstone fireplace and exposed beams. A fair chunk of the poet’s enormous library lines the walls, and the bay view takes in three bridges—an index of high status in Berkeley.

"I’m not an ascetic," says Danner. "I love to have a good time." Last spring, for example, he hosted more than a hundred guests at a cocktail party that featured a "sad Russian accordion player" serenading the partygoers on the terrace. Friends since college with his classmate, the well-known director Peter Sellars, Danner is alive to the arts. He’s a film buff, and often speaks at the Telluride Film Festival. For years, he ran a home film series for his journalism students, screening classics like The Battle of Algiers. "Students would go up there and eat themselves sick and see very violent films," says Orville Schell, with a guffaw.

 

Danner’s own student days began in Utica, New York, where he grew up the son of a dentist father and a "very artsy" mother who taught high-school Spanish. On drives to a lakeside cabin in the Adirondacks, Danner’s father regaled the boy with stories ranging from David and Goliath to Sarajevo in 1914 and Pearl Harbor. "My father had served as a gunner on an aircraft carrier in the South Pacific in World War II," Danner says, "and he had the feeling—a pretty common one—of being someone in the middle of combat who had no idea what was happening in the larger war. This led him afterwards to investigate what led to the war, which eventually turned him into a history buff."

In school, "I thought of myself as a rebel type," Danner recalls, adding that he spent a lot of time in detention: "I tended to run my mouth." In a drama competition, he won first prize playing Clarence Darrow in a scene from Inherit the Wind and coedited the newspaper, which won an award as the best high-school paper in the state. In a racially conflicted, inner-city school, it frequently published controversial stories, including a section on sex education that disturbed many in the heavily Catholic city and nearly got Danner and his coeditor expelled.

Yet Danner did not comp for the Crimson at Harvard, where he created his own concentration in modern literature and aesthetics. As a sophomore, he had a seminal learning experience when renowned literary critic Frank Kermode arrived to give the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures in 1977-78. After Kermode’s first lecture, Danner asked a question and soon afterward called on the scholar and convinced him to be his tutor. "Every week I would go to his office on the top floor of Widener and we’d talk for an hour and a half about Robbe-Grillet, James, Conrad, Woolf," Danner recalls. "That was a really important experience for me. We became fast friends and are still friends to this day—last year we spent several days together in Berkeley and I’ll see him this winter in London."

After graduation, having "refused to consider what I was going to do," Danner stumbled, at Harvard’s Office of Career Services, upon the name of a Radcliffe alumna in the literary field. She was Barbara Epstein ’49, who had founded the New York Review of Books with Robert Silvers in 1963. "I phoned her office on a Friday at about 6:30 or 7:00 p.m.," Danner says, "and to my shock, she got on the phone! Barbara grilled me for about 20 minutes. I knew the Review very well, having read every issue in Widener as a procrastination technique, and also knew several of their contributors, like Kermode and [now Buttenwieser University Professor] Stanley Hoffmann. At the end, Barbara said, ‘Come down and see us.’"

Come down he did, and soon joined the NYRB as an editorial assistant (a.k.a. "slave," he explains) to Silvers, a job he kept for three years. In the tiny, intense NYRB offices, Danner inhabited "an intellectual hothouse, with all these writers coming in and every book published coming through the door. I had a bird’s-eye view of the intellectual life of the country." Next, he became senior editor for Harper’s ("a young staff building a magazine, starting anew and presided over by this wonderfully entertaining chief [Lewis Lapham] with a very offbeat, contrarian view of the world"), followed by a stint at the New York Times Magazine, where he handled foreign affairs and politics, cabling correspondents in all parts of the world.

In 1999, in the wake of filing many reports from the Balkans, Danner was named a MacArthur Fellow. Currently he’s a bicoastal academic, teaching at Berkeley each spring semester and in the fall at Bard College in New York, where he is Luce professor of human rights, democracy, and journalism. At Berkeley he has co-taught a graduate seminar for five years with Peter Tarnoff, who was undersecretary of state for political affairs in the first Clinton administration. "The course is designed to teach students how the U.S. government reacts to foreign policy crises overseas," says Tarnoff. In simulated press conferences, students role-play both government officials trying to avoid and deflect questions while getting out their own point of view, and journalists striving to learn the facts. Tarnoff, of course, can convincingly portray an official, and he wryly notes that "Mark likes nothing better than to wade in at the end and show how an experienced reporter can get under the skin of someone at the microphone."

In the past couple of years, Danner has been behind the microphone himself many times, having given dozens of speech es—often broadcast on C-SPAN, CBS, or various radio stations—on public affairs, particularly the Iraq war, which he warned against months before the invasion, describing it as a grave foreign-policy blunder. He frequently debates other public intellectuals like Christopher Hitchens of Vanity Fair, Leon Wieseltier of the New Republic, William Kristol ’73 of the Weekly Standard, and Carr professor of human rights practice Michael Ignatieff.

In October, Danner made a public appearance in Berkeley at a GSJ panel on Iraq and the press, where he declared, "We are living in the age of the destruction of the fact. The press reports ‘two views of Iraq’—Bush with a ‘better’ view and Kerry a ‘worse’ view. There are two political positions on Iraq, but there are not two views on Iraq. When I was there last year, insurgent attacks were happening 17 times a day, and now they are happening nearly 100 times a day. The simple fact is that Americans are losing this war at the moment; in a war of insurgency, the guerillas win by not losing; the occupier loses by not winning. [For Fox News,] facts are simply political things; Fox is a harbinger of the new world of destruction of the fact."

After encountering some of the world’s most appalling acts at close quarters, Danner is a difficult man to shock. What seems to dumbfound him most is the way in which the most blatant abuses, even when fully exposed, trigger no corrective action. "Americans are divided, not about the principle of torture, which they condemn, but the practice of torture, which they have preferred to ignore," he said at the October panel. "The practice of water-boarding by American forces has been public knowledge for two years: beginning in 2002, there’ve been reports in the Washington Post and the New York Times. Yet no policymaker has resigned or even been reprimanded. At Abu Ghraib, Americans committed repugnant actions, evil acts, and only the lowest-level people have suffered any consequences at all. We’ve seen in the last few years what happens to a press in a country seized by nationalism and run by what is in effect a one-party government. It’s not just the fault of the press; the issue of inaction is an issue of politics—what the people are willing to do. It’s not information, it’s politics."

If this is an age of the destruction of the fact, Danner, a purveyor of hard-to-find facts, does not yet seem an anachronism. Furthermore, his writing "wrings the implications out of the facts," according to Peter Coyote. "Mark is not afraid to make a summation or come to a conclusion. He has a very clear moral voice," says Dave Eggers. "Since Mark has been where he has been and seen what he has seen, we can accept judgments from him and trust his conclusions."

Yet Danner has a higher priority than reaching conclusions. "I think of myself as a writer, not really an advocate," he says. "The biggest and most important job is to tell what happened. That’s difficult enough in itself. Three little words: tell what happened." He pauses. "If you do, that’s where your job ends," he says. "And the reader’s begins."

 

Craig A. Lambert ’69, Ph.D. ’78, is deputy editor of this magazine.