By Ryan Meehan
Toby Harnden is Washington bureau chief for The Sunday Times of London. A dual British and American citizen, he has reported from across the world in a 20-year career in journalism. His bestseller Dead Men Risen: An Epic Story of War and Heroism in Afghanistan was winner of the Orwell Prize, Britain’s most prestigious award for political writing. An American edition of Dead Men Risen, containing a new epilogue and fresh revelations, has been published in the United States. Harnden also wrote Bandit Country: The IRA & South Armagh. He was presenter and reporter for the 2013 BBC Panorama special Broken by Battle, about PTSD among British troops and veterans. The programme was shortlisted for a Royal Television Society Award and a MIND Media Award, and I am very excited to have Toby Harnden as my guest today in 10 questions.
RM: When did you initially fall in love with the practice of writing; and why do you believe that your skill set has been such a perfect fit for the field of journalism?
TH: As far back as I can remember I was writing stories and laying out newspaper front pages with my children’s printing set. I’ve still got the original manuscript of my first book, entitled “The Cry of Death: The Adventures of Private Nigel Murphy” and published privately when I was eight in a limited edition of one. At school, I felt naturally drawn to History and English and I have always loved finding things out, especially if I wasn’t supposed to know about them. At Oxford University, I studied Modern History and would have one essay to do a week, usually on a subject I knew nothing about at the start of the week. I’d tend to take the first four days of the week off doing other things like sports, student politics, sleeping or hanging out with my girlfriend. On the fifth day I’d go to the library, get out the books I needed and if I was feeling especially keen start reading one or two of them. On the sixth day I’d work pretty hard, reading a lot of the books. Day seven and I was in overdrive. I’d complete the reading list, start writing in the evening and then stay up until dawn finishing. That can sometimes be close how my week unfolds when I have just one deadline. I’m not sure that my skill set is perfect for journalism – though maybe that’s because insecurity and even a degree of paranoia are part of the necessary skill set.
RM: Right before we entered the year 2015, you posted this very compelling status update on Facebook: ”I like Facebook in many ways. But the relentless positivism can be problematic, even depressing at times. Everyone presents their lives as being perfect. It’s understandable that we do this and I’m as guilty of it as anyone, perhaps more than most. But it means we are often inauthentic as we busy ourselves maintaining the facade of what a great time we’re having. Sometimes I yearn for someone to post: “It’s been a crap year. Glad it’s over.” To what degree do you feel that social networking has given individuals the ability to create a somewhat unhealthy and distorted view of their own lives; and what type of long-term effects do you project social media might have on the psychological well-being of future generations?
TH: That post came from the heart. I separated from my wife at the beginning of 2015. The state of my marriage and the terrifying prospect of losing my children was something I’d struggled with for a long time and had talked about to very, very few people. Somewhat ironically, if I thought 2014 had been a crap year that was nothing compared to what 2015 turned out to be. I do like Facebook and it has also helped me to establish and renew some real-life friendships. But I was finding it a bit of a bummer to be constantly reading all this uniformly upbeat stuff about how wonderful everyone else’s lives were at a time when I was feeling my life wasn’t great. Then, of course, I realized I was doing the same thing – you could look at my life via Facebook and it would seem like a Hallmark card. The lesson is to never compare your inside to other people’s outsides.
So I think social networking is a great gateway and supplement to real life but if you focus on it too much then it can distorts things dramatically. People’s lives are a lot more messy and complicated – and, often, unhappy – than they seem on Facebook. In the past 12 months I’ve opened up to some people who had these perfect Facebook lives and – surprise, surprise – like me, not everything was totally peachy with them in their real lives.
I do think that Facebook and Twitter can lead to a degree of narcissism and of trying to record experiences rather than savour them. We all have to discipline ourselves to put our phones down. I keep all electronic devices out of my bedroom and for the past decade I’ve gone on a two-week vacation at least once a year in which I put out of office replies on everything, give my news desk an emergency number and switch my phone off for the duration. At the end of the vacation, I’ve always been reminded that the world can manage to continue without me.
An ugly divorce and custody battle has taken a great emotional and financial toll on me – 2015 was essentially a write-off. But over the past 12 months or so I have made great efforts to forge and build more authentic relationships with people rather than constantly gliding on the surface, which is what social networks often seduce us into doing. I love the Peter Steiner cartoon in the New Yorker in which there’s a dog sitting in front of a computer screen telling another dog: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” So many people – and we’re probably all guilty of it to a degree – create an online persona that masks our real selves. We have this sense that we’re getting to know people better but often we’re just dealing with a façade.
RM: On a scale of one to ten where one is unwatchable drivel and ten is TV magic, how do you think your most recent appearance on “Red Eye with Greg Gutfeld” went? Are there any cool behind-the-scenes quirks of that broadcast that you can share with those of us who are fans of the show?
TH: Red Eye is a lot of fun to do. I’ve done two of them and Greg was the host for the second one. I’m glad I got to do one with him before he moved on because to me Greg is Red Eye. I think my second appearance was better than the first but I didn’t watch either – if I can possibly help it, I never watch myself on TV, though having recently lost 30+ pounds (thanks Fitbit) means I’m a little more prepared to do so than previously. There’s no way I could rate myself but judging by Twitter reaction (mainly from the West Coast and Alaska) it seems like a 6 to 7. I think the best way to do Red Eye would be for everyone to drink for an hour or so beforehand. You know, not get drunk but have enough booze to shed a few inhibitions. There were particular quirks I noticed. What struck me was how professional it was – everyone’s trying to be light-hearted and off-the-cuff but everyone on the show was well prepared and wanted to do their best. About three hours before the show you get a “Show Map” listing the clips they’ll show and the subjects that will be discussed. I spent nearly two hours watching the clips, reading around the subjects and jotting down a few quips and thoughts next to teach item. The routine is that you then forward this document to the producer. I took the document into the studio for the show but did my best not to look at it. I generally find with TV and any public speaking the best approach is to prepare very thoroughly but dispense with the notes for the event itself – otherwise the notes can be a crutch and you end up reciting stuff.
RM: You have gone on record as saying that 43rd American president George W. Bush is often “misunderstood”…Why do you feel that is the case regarding the public’s perception of his presidency; and what are some of the accomplishments of his administration that you would say have been overlooked?
TH: I think that much of the media fell for a lazy caricature of George W. Bush and that still persists. I still find it incredible that someone can describe Bush as intellectually incurious, dyslexic, a warmonger, just plain stupid et cetera and they’ll be hailed as brave, witty and perceptive. In reality, such sentiments are just going with the herd and they’re a substitute for real thought. The same thing happened in reverse with Barack Obama during the 2008 election. I was guilty of it to a degree. Although I’m a writer, I think the ability to craft beautiful sentences is overrated, especially in politics. What really matters is policy and action. The most remarkable achievement of the Bush administration I felt was the Iraq surge. If you remember the atmosphere after the “the thumpin'” in the 2006 midterms, everyone wanted the US to cut its losses in Iraq. Harry Reid had said we’d been defeated, the poll number for war support were terrible and virtually no one was counselling anything other than a pull-out; the only debate seems to be how fast it could be done. Bush dismissed all this and ordered the surge. He signalled to the Sunni insurgency that he would do whatever it took to achieve victory. Obama, of course, did the opposite by withdrawing all troops from Iraq at the end of 2011 when the popular mood in the US was that we should forget the place. That made for a good bumper sticker slogan during the 2012 election but the rise of Isis has shown that it was a huge strategic blunder.
RM: You’ve officially been an American citizen since 2009…Which of the rights that you have acquired since then would you say citizens already living in the country take for granted the most? Why would you say that right is so undervalued by people who are born and raised here in the States?
TH: I think the right to free speech is the one I cherish most and the one Americans most take for granted. I spent two weeks in jail in Zimbabwe accused of “practising journalism without accreditation” because I hadn’t been issued with a journalism permit by the Mugabe regime before interviewing people at a polling station. In Britain, people are excluded from the country by the government because of things they have said, including talk radio host Michael Savage. There was recently a petition signed by 571,000 calling for Donald Trump to be banned for his comments about Muslims. I profoundly disagree with Trump there is little sense in Britain of the dictum – often misattributed to Voltaire – of “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Hundreds of people are prosecuted in the UK each year for “grossly offensive” statements via Facebook and Twitter.
RM: In your opinion, what is the most horrifying aspect of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? How did you go about bringing that horror to the forefront of “Broken by Battle”?
TH: It’s all horrifying. But the fact I find most shocking is that it is often the bravest of the brave, those who acquitted themselves with extraordinary courage on the battlefield, who return home and cannot cope. We send troops to do these things in our name and then expect them to “move on” at the same pace as the news cycle. That’s something as a society that we need to address.
RM: What was the most unexpected article of fact that you discovered while researching the subject matter which would eventually become “Dead Man Risen”?
TH: I had never come across the phenomenon of “battle shock” before – the freezing terror or panic or complete lack of concern for one’s own safety that can envelope troops when they reach breaking point. This can be a precursor to PTSD but it is a different thing. Amongst the Welsh Guards there soldiers who collapsed and had to be carried away, weeping and in the foetal position, and loaded onto a helicopter. On more than one occasion, soldiers stripped off their body armour and helmets and exposed themselves to enemy fire.
RM: I saw former US Ambassador John Bolton on Media Buzz last April (4/19/15, FNC) and he said he worries that what is currently going on in the Middle East may be the beginning of a very dangerous nuclear arms race…How would you recommend the United States and President Obama handle a situation such as Iran moving forward; and might we as Americans find ourselves in a quandary where there is no optimal solution?
TH: What’s happening in the Middle East now is really scary and it feels like the situation is more dangerous than at any time in the past three decades. We might be seeing the beginning of a cataclysmic war between Shia and Sunni across the whole region.
RM: What were some of the main reasons for the incorrect assumptions and beliefs about South Armagh that led it to be dubbed “Bandit Country”?
TH: The term was coined by Merlyn Rees, a British defence secretary, in the mid-1970s. I think it was counter-productive and played into the hands of the IRA because it telegraphed the belief that it was a no-go area in which the entire population was made up of rebels. While South Armagh was and remains hostile to the British presence there were people who were very anti-IRA and I think the British security forces and intelligence services were slow to capitalise on that.
RM: I saw an interview you did on The Foxhole with James Rosen where you discussed the struggles of the Welsh battalions who did not have the resources that other armies did when facing the Taliban…Is your documentation of this instance something you believe should serve as a warning to countries all across the world that are aiming to cut defense spending, or was this an isolated incident that was simply a result of poor planning and/or structural deficiencies?
TH: It certainly wasn’t isolated. Dead Men Risen turned into a book about what happens when you under-resource troops and send them to do a job they’re not equipped to do. That’s been a very British failing in Iraq and Afghanistan but it’s by no means unique to the UK.
RM: What’s up next for you in 2016 and beyond? Anything big in the works that we should know about?
TH: I’ve covered four presidential elections and hope and believe that this will be my last. I’m about to turn 50. I’m single again and the personal turmoil I’ve gone through recently has certainly led me to reassess my life. It’s time for a change. Watch this space.
Official Website: http://www.tobyharnden.com/
Toby on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/tobyharndenauthor
Toby on Twitter: https://twitter.com/tobyharnden
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