Expert Commentary

Research chat: Rajiv Chandrasekaran on conflict-zone and military reporting

2013 interview with Washington Post foreign correspondent and associate editor Rajiv Chandrasekaran, author of Little America: The War within the War for Afghanistan.

rajiv chandrasekaran

Rajiv Chandrasekaran is a senior correspondent and associate editor at the Washington Post, as well as the author of two books on U.S. civilian and military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone, Chandrasekaran’s first book, takes an in-depth look at reconstruction efforts after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Widely acclaimed as one of the definitive first-hand accounts of life inside Baghdad’s walled off Green Zone, Imperial Life in the Emerald City won Chandrasekaran the 2007 Samuel Johnson Prize and made it onto the New York Times list of the 10 best books of 2007. His second book, Little America: The War within the War for Afghanistan, was published in 2012 and details many of the challenges and missteps that have characterized America’s longest war.

Chandrasekaran has been with the Post since 1994 and has since reported from dozens of countries. He was part of the team of reporters sent to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the months immediately following September 11, 2001; he also served as the Baghdad bureau chief from 2003 to 2004 and covered the war in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2011, traveling frequently throughout the dangerous southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar.

As part of our ongoing research chat series, Journalist’s Resource asked him for some insights into effective reporting from combat zones as well as his thoughts on embedding with the military. The following is an edited transcript of an interview conducted by research assistant Alexandra Raphel:


Journalist’s Resource: What websites — blogs, government sites, journals — would you recommend to young journalists who want to cover military affairs and foreign policy?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: I’d divide up my recommended reading list into three categories. The first consists of subject matter expertise. In addition to coverage from large news organizations —  the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Guardian, NPR — I would recommend Foreign Policy, a scan of military publications such as Army Times, and Small Wars Journal. Journalists should also seek out listservs or moderated groups involving people who have a particular passion for military issues — often retired officers — who are culling information and posting links. And my Twitter feed [@rajivscribe] generally gives me a decent enough handle on what’s happening in an area without getting too in the weeds.

afghanistan--wikipediaThe second tranche is just excellent writing and reporting that, in many cases, doesn’t have anything to do with national security or foreign policy. Read widely and when it comes to foreign policy, don’t just focus on your own niche. Recently, I have been more of an AfPak and military guy, but I still read about China and Latin America.

The third category is content coming from the region in which I’m interested. This means trying to keep up with news sources from Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as coverage of the region from non-U.S. or British outlets. I usually either find these sources from people I follow on Twitter, or I actively seek them out.

JR: Do you draw on academic materials?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Yes, especially when adapted for a wider audience. Academic pieces that make it into Foreign Affairs or white papers that get adapted into op-eds will sometimes lead me to the original source material.

JR: What do you do when experts disagree on fundamental questions?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: That actually makes me excited. It’s often boring when there is one pat answer. Big questions for which you’ve got compelling arguments on both sides prompt me to delve in further and make me wonder whether there’s some journalism to be committed around the subject. Speaking for myself, I like to see points of dissonance.

JR: Outside of interviewing, what has been your research process for your longer features and book-length projects? What mix of Web and shoe-leather reporting do you find helpful?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Both of my books have been somewhat unique in the world of foreign policy, because they’re largely based on my own reportage, which makes the endnotes sections pretty sparse. My most valuable research sources for my most recent book were file boxes of Moleskine notebooks from trips to Afghanistan and manuscripts of interviews I conducted. If necessary, I fill in gaps along the way either through information from other publications or, at times, academic work.

Because I was striving to produce something narrative and character-driven, the way I translated notes into a book draft didn’t involve listing out arguments and going in search of supporting evidence. Instead, I identified the key points I wanted to impart and then selected principal players and crucial events/scenes to overlay into a coherent whole. I felt it was more important to try and tell a story rather than checking all the boxes of a more academic book.

JR: Little America includes a lot of reporting from when you were embedded with U.S. troops in Afghanistan. As a reporter, how does it feel to be in that environment? How do you balance being respectful of military efforts while being critical of their actions, if necessary?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: First of all, I recognize that there are lots of big questions to be asked about the role of journalists in an embedded capacity, but I don’t believe embedding fundamentally compromises your objectivity.

I have also found that critical pieces don’t upset my military hosts as long as they are thoughtful, well reported and factually supported. If anything, this prompts discussion. I find military officers at all levels are generally willing to thoughtfully engage with these complicated issues. I have never had anyone say to me: “That’s not a positive story so you can’t stick around here with us.” They don’t like cheap shots and neither do I, but I’ve never had to pull punches to operate as an embedded journalist. I never felt like if I wrote a tough story I couldn’t go back into the field.

JR: Does being embedded with the troops affect how you speak and interact with local people? How do you define your role to them?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: A big issue with embedding is recognizing that it only gives you one perspective on the conflict. Engaging with the local population in the presence of foreign forces — even if you bring your own interpreter — still colors the discussion.

The only way you are really going to get a greater degree of candor is to go to those places in an unembedded capacity, though sometimes this is impossible because of security. I had brave Iraqis and brave Afghans help me with some of the reporting to take a pulse in some of these places to make sure the sentiments I was picking up in the presence of military personnel accurately represented how the local population felt about a particular issue.

On occasion I would go out just with an interpreter. That was a far more low-visibility way to go about one’s reporting, but it was not always possible.

JR: Your reporting on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars includes in-depth coverage of government decisions and actions, many of which you disapprove. Can you talk a bit about the balance career journalists must strike in order to cover important, controversial topics while making sure they aren’t burning bridges that may be valuable in the future?

Marine_WikipediaRajiv Chandrasekaran: The need to maintain relationships is often a factor to consider and perhaps leads me away from gratuitous criticism. However, I would argue there’s a good reason to stay away from gratuitous stuff for reasons that go beyond maintaining relationships.

I’ve always found that if the story needs to be told, it’s always better to write it and risk a little bit of wrath. And if you call it like it is — even when this means burning a good source — and the reporting is both ironclad and revelatory, you wind up finding new sources who will come out of the woodwork to help you later.

JR: What final pieces of advice would you give to journalists looking to get involved in the kind of conflict zone reporting you have been doing?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: If you want get into this, start small and work your way up. Don’t just up and go to a war zone if you haven’t cut your teeth elsewhere and if you don’t have an organization that has your back. It is important to remember that places like Libya and Syria are incredibly dangerous, challenging environments. It is far better to sharpen your skills in what the military would call a “less kinetic” environment before trying to go out to a real active-fire war zone.

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