In the”battle of ideas,” a seasoned war correspondent wages peace.
In the”battle of ideas,” a seasoned war correspondent wages peace.
By Helen Mondloch
At the Slaviya Bar and Lounge in Adams Morgan, Philip Smucker is bantering with friends who have come to bid him farewell. In 48 hours he will board a flight to Kabul, marking his 10th trip to Afghanistan since the War on Terror erupted there in late 2001.
Sporting a scruffy beard and small hoop earring, Smucker, 49, is a lively and lighthearted raconteur. As this casbah rocks to glittering lights, he shares stories about the week-long contingency training he just completed in the hills of West Virginia, where he learned, among other things—and against his own best instincts as a reporter who has always refused to carry arms—to shoot a Kalashnikov (Russian assault rifle). In his upcoming stint with the U.S. Agency for International Development (US-AID), the shooting skills might prove handy, the thinking goes, in the event that someone tosses him a gun and he’s “the last guy standing.”
Friends chuckle as he also recounts the driving simulations that allowed him to crash cars and flee the scene with all the reckless abandon of his youth.
Smucker’s affable, unpretentious manner belies the gravity of his experience and the magnitude of his accomplishments as a veteran war correspondent. Throughout his 25-year career as an independent journalist, he has traversed the globe to report on conflicts in nations like Burma, Haiti, Cambodia and Indonesia, as well as the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the Balkan War of the ‘90s, he witnessed firsthand what has been called the worst carnage since the Nazi era. Over the years, Smucker has been forcibly expelled by local police, shot at by thugs, abducted by bandits, even harassed by a group of U.S. Marines who didn’t particularly care for his reporting skills.
Smucker’s chronicles include a story in the Christian Science Monitor that broke the news of Osama Bin Laden’s escape out of Afghanistan in the fall of 2001—what later became the subject of his first book, “Al-Qaeda’s Great Escape.” His gutsy coverage of the Battle of Tora Bora—and subsequent exposés about the U.S. government’s bungling of that mission—brought him widespread recognition. His groundbreaking reports also earned him three nominations for the Pulitzer Prize.
Besides the Monitor, Smucker’s articles have appeared in more than a dozen publications, including U.S. News and World Report, Time, The Atlantic Monthly, USA Today and The Huffington Post. He has delivered expert testimony about various war fronts on CBS, CNN and other television stations, as well as in his own documentaries. His latest endeavor, a book published in summer 2010, takes readers on a riveting journey through large swaths of Asia, Africa and the Middle East. The title reflects Smucker’s desire to unearth the roots of terrorism and help forge a path to peace: “My Brother, My Enemy: America and the Battle of Ideas across the Islamic World.”
Indeed, anyone who reads Smucker’s work thoughtfully might well come away convinced that his insights have the potential to bridge the dark chasm between America and the elusive “other” we call our enemy.
Rooted Far and Near
For such an unfettered sojourner and far-sighted eyewitness to history, Smucker is a man with surprisingly provincial roots. A 1979 graduate of T.C. Williams High School, he still calls Alexandria his home—one that he now shares with Ivana, his wife of 12 years and an international relief worker who hails from Belgrade. (While covering the Bosnian War, Smucker hired the tall, striking blonde to teach him the Serb language. His interest in his studies was soon trumped by interest in his tutor.)
Smucker’s family tree is steeped in Virginia history and vintage Americana. His mother Louisa is a direct descendant of two founding fathers—George Washington and George Mason—whose families intermarried several times over the course of a few generations. Her grandfather, John Augustine Washington, was the last member of the Washington family to reside at Mount Vernon. (Given Smucker’s penchant for quoting Washington and Mason in his writings, perhaps it’s not surprising that they literally inhabit his genes.) Louisa Smucker’s father, moreover, was the grandson of Samuel Cooper, the highest-ranking Confederate general in the Civil War. Meanwhile, Smucker’s father, Reverend John Smucker III, a retired Episcopalian priest, boasts a pedigree that is perhaps more quaint: He is the distant relative of J.M. Smucker, who in 1904 founded the company that still produces those ubiquitous staples, Smucker’s jelly and jam. John and Louisa Smucker have resided for years on a historic property off Alexandria’s Quaker Lane that has been in Louisa’s family for well over a century.
Like his interest in social justice, Smucker’s wanderlust took hold early in life. His parents were avid travelers. His father was also a pacifist and an activist in the civil rights movement. “He still believes that the individual makes the difference—very American in that regard,” says Smucker. He also recalls that in the wake of Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination, his dad was so distraught that he barged into 7-year-old Philip’s room and broke the boy’s toy gun.
Smucker’s worldly interests expanded further after he studied abroad in France while working on a bachelor’s degree in English literature at the University of California-Berkeley. He later attended the University of Michigan, receiving a master’s degree in journalism.
In 1986 Smucker moved to Bangkok to teach English and began writing freelance articles for American newspapers. Within two years he scored what he calls his “first good splash”—reporting on anti-government uprisings in Burma. In his first book he recalls leaping over an entry rail at the Burmese airport and racing past soldiers to investigate the massacre of student protesters. He reported on the crisis in The Washington Post and in three interviews with Dan Rather on CBS.
From there, his reporting career took off, becoming what he now calls “something of an obsession.” He traveled to Russia to cover the Soviet break-up, took numerous trips to Vietnam, and, one late night in early 1994, scaled a cactus-covered mountain to smuggle himself into Haiti, where a military coup had catapulted the tiny nation into turmoil. Similar dynamics have compelled him into perilous combat zones many times since.
Good from Evil
While he seems to thrive on the adrenaline rush that comes with a foreign correspondent’s territory, Smucker is no war hawk. His purpose is to promote peace by exposing the unspeakable realities on the killing fields, a sentiment he humbly expresses in “Al Qaeda’s Great Escape”: “Through the years, I had kept the faith that exposing a little of the world’s evil might do some genuine good.”
On the same page, Smucker waxes poetic as he reveals the excruciating personal cost of dispatching news from the front lines: “Sometimes, bloodied faces, deep purple with death, distorted with hate and fear, turn up in the twilight.” He goes on to describe a poignant vision of massacre in Kosovo: Here two dozen Albanians lay dead at his feet while Serbian police “rifle through their pockets” and 10 small children peer out of a frosted window. As he tells it, “My hear sinks as my eyes meet theirs. The vision begins with me on the inside, as one of the petrified children looking out. This would be something to shake off, just another bad nightmare—that is, if I had never been there on that frosty afternoon.”
Irony and Ideals
Smucker’s idealism, combined with a deeply transcendent view of history and a sharp sense of irony, have apparently sustained him through two-and-a-half decades of haunting encounters. In typical style, his first book offers a sweeping and sympathetic take on Afghanistan’s age-old strife: “On this fertile soil one of the richest Buddhist cultures in the world had once flourished, populated by a placid nation of begging monks aspiring toward Nirvana—until Alexander the Great came charging across Persia and down from the Hindu Kush with his minions. Since then, half a dozen empires had come and gone, and the valley had alternated from savagery to tranquility and back again.”
In addition to such compelling panoramas, Smucker punctuates his adventure tales with humor and bits of self-mockery. When describing his hunt for Bin Ladin through the Afghan highlands, he reveals that he and his partners “didn’t exactly expect to see ‘The Sheikh’… suddenly prancing towards us on a mountain pass on horseback, but in preparation for all contingencies we always carried an empty whiskey bottle and an eight-by-eight Persian carpet in the back seat. Given the chance, we planned to whack the bastard over the head, roll him up, throw him in the back of the Pajero, and speed to Delhi with our precious cargo.”
Smucker’s caricatures of himself help lighten what is inevitably a dark saga. Just as startling as his images of wartime brutality are revelations about misfires on the part of the U.S. government and even on the part of his own profession—the “forth estate” of journalism.
In his accounts about Al Qaeda’s mind-boggling “great escape,” he exposes the wrongheadedness of the Bush team’s embrace of popular, short-term successes in lieu of a long-term strategy to capture and defeat the worst of the bad guys. Moreover, he paints a highly convincing picture of American media outlets’ propagandizing and pandering to the public’s demand for revenge after 9/11. A case in point was the treatment of civilian casualties in news coverage from the front lines of the War on Terror. He quotes Brit Hume, Fox News’ director and anchor, brazenly remarking, “We know we’re at war. The fact that some people are dying, is that really news?” Smucker also reports on CNN’s “bizarre” and “condescending” policy requiring that footage of civilian deaths air only with simultaneous audio about the events of 9/11.
Smucker has likewise lamented from the start of President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, asserting that Saddam Hussein was little more than a “teapot dictator” who posed no threat to national security. He argues that the invasion “played right into the hands of Bin Laden” and gave rise to a radical insurgency. He fears an even greater “blowback” in the years ahead.
Moreover, while Smucker dedicates his first book to “the daring fighting men and women of the U.S. military,” he doesn’t hesitate to call out military members when they betray American principles of honor and decency. Indeed, it seems his greatest disillusionments have resulted from instances when U.S. troops abused their power. He cites the horrors of Abu-Ghraib as one example. On a more personal note, he recounts how a team of Marines in Iraq—apparently disgruntled after Smucker appeared on CNN and disclosed in broad terms the whereabouts of the unit he was trailing—arrested, handcuffed and detained him for several hours in a hotel basement. He recalls one Marine getting in his face and yelling in a thick southern accent: “Shut-up, boy, or we’ll hogtie you!”
Despite painful experiences, Smucker has never surrendered his convictions or his faith. In fact, both his books and articles consistently convey his overarching belief that the world can become a better place.
He is fond of quoting great thinkers like Winston Churchill and the founding fathers, including his two shining forebears. In debates about torture and mosques, he urges Americans to take the “high road,” remaining loyal to the Bill of Rights and longstanding commitments to tolerance. He praises President Obama as a “brilliant thinker who understands inherently the issue of oppression.” Smucker also urges the use of “soft power” and “strategic nonviolence”—a term ironically introduced to him by a Major at West Point who teaches courses in peacekeeping—mainly, the application of American business ingenuity to promote commerce and education around the world. “If we squander our leadership in the battle of ideas,” he declares, “we’ll be left just fighting a war; that’s all we’ll [be doing]—into perpetuity.”
The battle of ideas begins at home, he suggests. When Americans see the War on Terror in simplistic terms—as a clash of good versus evil or Christian versus Muslim, notions promoted by the popular media—the truth gets lost. He insists that “the vast majority of Muslims are non-violent and want nothing to do with Al Qaeda and its affiliates.” He adds that “extremism feeds off a perception of injustice, and, in the case of the (Palestinian) West Bank, genuine injustice.”
These are the central ideas of “My Brother, My Enemy,” in which Smucker gleans commentary from all over the Arab world to reveal the prevailing perception that America is aiding and abetting in the oppression of Palestinians. Given the grim reality that such opinions fuel the firestorm of terrorism, he urges America to employ its weighty leverage to broker Mid-East peace. As he puts the matter, “All roads to peace pass through Jerusalem.” And for those who are convinced that Arabs and Israelis can never get along, Smucker once again provides some breathtaking historical perspective to suggest otherwise.
For the moment, Smucker is using his own “soft power” as a USAID worker in Kabul, working alongside local journalists to help establish and promote a free press for the nascent Afghan democracy. He took a similar high road several years ago in the African nation of Liberia, using his talents as a reporter and news analyst to break ground for a newspaper that focused on war crimes, corruption and post-conflict development issues.
The current mission allows Smucker to help his “courageous Afghan friends” while practicing the principles he has always embraced. “I’m pleased to have returned to my old haunts, albeit in another incarnation,” he says.