Every now and then, I teach a class to young would-be journalists and one of the first things I talk about is why I consider writing an act of generosity. As they are usually just beginning to stretch their writerly wings, their task, as I see it, is to enter the world we’re already in (it’s generally the only place they can afford to go) and somehow decode it for us, make us see it in a new way. And who can deny that doing so is indeed an act of generosity? But for the foreign correspondent, especially in war zones, the generosity lies in the very act of entering a world filled with dangers, a world that the rest of us might not be capable of entering, or for that matter brave enough to enter, and somehow bringing us along with them.
I thought about this recently when I had in my hands the first copy of Nick Turse’s new Dispatch Book, Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan, and flipped it open to its memorable initial paragraph, one I already new well, and began to read it all over again:
“Their voices, sharp and angry, shook me from my slumber. I didn’t know the language but I instantly knew the translation. So I groped for the opening in the mosquito net, shuffled from my downy white bed to the window, threw back the stained tan curtain, and squinted into the light of a new day breaking in South Sudan. Below, in front of my guest house, one man was getting his ass kicked by another. A flurry of blows connected with his face and suddenly he was on the ground. Three or four men were watching.”
Nick, TomDispatch’s managing editor and a superb historian as well as reporter, spent years in a war-crimes zone of the past to produce his award-winning book, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. It was a harrowing historical journey for which he traveled to small villages on the back roads of Vietnam to talk to those who had experienced horrific crimes decades earlier. In 2015, however, on his second trip to South Sudan, a country the U.S. helped bring into existence, he found himself in an almost unimaginable place where the same kinds of war crimes were being committed right then and there in a commonplace way, where violence was the coin of the realm, and horrors of various sorts were almost guaranteed to be around the next corner. In his new book, he brings us with him into such a world in a way that is deeply memorable.
Ann Jones, author of They Were Soldiers, calls him “the wandering scribe of war crimes.” And she adds, “Reading Turse will turn your view of war upside down... There’s no glory here in Turse’s pages, but the clear voices of people caught up in this fruitless cruelty, speaking for themselves.”
Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead is, I think, the definition of an act of generosity. Nick has just returned from his latest trip to South Sudan and his latest piece, “Donald Trump in South Sudan,” gives you a sense of the ongoing brutalities and incongruities of life there (and here as well).