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Reporting the Georgian War: Is Bernard-Henri Lévy a Fabulist?

Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2008

When war breaks out, French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy is decidedly in his element. "BHL," as he is known in France, made a first venture into his peculiar brand of literary war reporting as the self-appointed bard of the Bosniak cause during the Bosnian civil war in the early 1990s. This was then followed -- in sometimes dizzyingly short order -- by quick jaunts into war zones or areas of civil unrest in Algeria, Afghanistan (to visit Massoud), Sri Lanka, Burundi, Colombia, Southern Sudan and Israel (during the Israel-Hezbollah War of 2006), and even a brief foray into Darfur last year.

Thus, when war broke out between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia last month, BHL packed his bags and set off to Tbilisi. (Cited in the Independent, a fellow guest at the Tbilisi Marriot describes spotting BHL and his entourage "loafing around in the foyer puffing clouds of smoke, and gesticulating meaningfully.") The Georgian capital was not, however, BHL's ultimate destination. BHL had his sights set rather on the city of Gori, which was clearly penciled in to play roughly the role of Sarajevo in his version of the South Ossetia War: what the philosopher likes to call a "martyred city." Gori had been the target of Russian aerial attacks and, following the withdrawal of the bulk of Georgian combat forces on Aug. 11, it was rumored to have been ravaged by marauding bands of Russian-affiliated paramilitaries.

Lévy's published account of his voyage appeared in Le Monde on Aug. 19 and then one day later in English on the American Web site the Huffington Post. It bears the title "Georgia at War: What I Saw": or "Choses vues dans la Géorgie en guerre" in the French original. Lévy describes traveling to Gori on what would have been Aug. 13 -- the author does not himself provide date or time. He had hitched a ride with Georgian official Alexander Lomaia and Estonian Ambassador Toomas Lukk. Washington Post reporter Tara Bahrampour and European parliament envoy Marie-Anne Isler-Béguin also formed part of the group. Upon arriving in Gori, Lévy reports seeing a city on fire. Gori is "a Georgian town," Lévy writes, "And [the Russians] have burned it down, pillaged it, reduced it to a ghost town." The full passage (in the translation of the Huffington Post) reads as follows:

After crossing through six new check points, one of which consists of a tree trunk hoisted up and down by a winch commanded by a group of paramilitaries, we arrive in Gori. We are not in the center of the city. But from where Lomaia has dropped us, before taking off in the Audi to collect his wounded, from this intersection dominated by an enormous tank as big as a rolling bunker, we can see fires burning everywhere. Rockets lighting up the sky at regular intervals, followed by short detonations. The emptiness. The slight odor of putrefaction and death. Most of all, the incessant rumbling of armored vehicles. Almost every other car is an unmarked car jammed with militia, recognizable because of their white armbands and their headbands. Gori does not belong to the Ossetia which the Russians claim they have come to "liberate." It is a Georgian town. And they have burned it down, pillaged it, reduced it to a ghost town.

The problem with this account, however, is that Lévy appears not to have seen what he reported seeing. In fact, as has since been confirmed by other members of the group and even conceded by members of Lévy's own entourage, Lévy never made it to Gori.

The first indication that something is amiss was to be found in Tara Bahrampour's own account of the voyage, which was published in the Washington Post on Aug. 14. The dateline reads: "OUTSIDE GORI, Georgia, Aug. 13." In the actual text of the article, Bahrampour, much in the spirit of BHL, hopefully upgrades "outside Gori" to an "area just outside [the] city center." But what she describes seeing there -- or indeed even "a few check points" further on -- makes it clear that the group is not in a city at all: "A Russian tank stood in the road. Large trees nearby had been reduced to stumps and the area around them was scorched. Beyond them, the fields were on fire." Fields: i.e. the intrepid group has arrived, at best, only on the outskirts of the city.

In the meanwhile, the French Web site Rue89 has sparked a raging controversy in France by directly challenging Lévy's claims by way of interviews with other members of the group. (See here in French.) The most damning testimony comes from European parliament member Marie-Anne Isler-Béguin. Referring to Lévy's account of the voyage, Isler-Béguin told Rue89:

If he can distinguish between soldiers and paramilitary forces, he's more talented than I am. If he smelled an odor of putrefaction, I didn't. He also writes that Gori had been burned down, pillaged and reduced to a ghost town. But at the moment in question, one couldn't say: quite simply, because nobody was there yet. After all, we stopped 1.5 kilometers from Gori.

BHL associate Gilles Herzog, who accompanied Lévy on his voyage, confirmed the eurodeputy's account: "No, we didn't enter the city. We stopped at the outskirts, I'm not sure how many kilometers from Gori." This did not, however, prevent Herzog, once his words had been published, from firing off an angry letter to Rue89, in which he asserts in plain contradiction to the facts that BHL never claimed to have entered the city anyway.

Comparing Bahrampour's and Lévy's accounts, it would appear that Lévy mixed actual first-hand observations and details that were in fact reported to him rather by Lomaia -- hardly a neutral observer to the conflict. By employing the semantic fudge of noting that the group was "not at the city-center" (centre-ville in French), he appears, in addition, to have sought to preserve the illusion of authentic first-hand reporting, while leaving an escape hatch in case of challenge.

As so happens, the Italian journalist Andrea Nicastro did get to Gori: one day before Lévy and Bahrampour made their aborted attempt and traveling by car from the Black Sea port of Poti, in the opposite direction from Tbilisi. If Gori was "burnt down" and pillaged on the 13th, then presumably there must have been some sign of the burning and pillaging on the 12th. Asked by World Politics Review whether he had observed anything that might confirm Lévy's account of the destruction of Gori, Andrea Nicastro responded: "It's true the town was almost empty: a few old people, many drunk, lots of Georgian police. It's also true that it was bombed in places. But it was not at all 'burnt down.'" "Today Gori is still pretty much intact," Nicastro added.

Incidentally, while in Gori on Aug. 12, Nicastro observed yet another detail that is relevant to "war crimes" charges against Russia and, more specifically, charges that the Russian air force indiscriminately bombed not only military, but also civilian targets in Gori: namely, the presence in the city of Georgian security forces dressed as civilians. "While the columns of tanks of the routed Georgian army fell back for the defense of the capital Tbilisi," he wrote in the Italian daily Corriere della Sera (Italian link),

military personnel who had developed a sudden allergy to their uniforms remained. Shiny black or white Volkswagens had replaced the military trucks and jeeps. The youngest wore t-shirts and jeans; the others wore slacks. A strangely out of place elegance for someone carrying a machine gun in his hands. Soldiers wearing civilian clothing and circulating in civilian autos.

As Nicastro pointed out, such behavior is clearly prohibited under the Geneva Conventions, precisely because it puts the lives of real civilians at risk.

Although the extent of the controversy unleashed by the Rue89 article is unprecedented, this is by no means the first time that BHL's war reporting has come in for criticism. Indeed, his instant "eyewitness" accounts have frequently been exposed as unreliable by specialists in the regions or conflicts in question. A part of the problem is undoubtedly that Lévy's literary style of war reporting is, after all, at least as much literature as it is journalism. From a literary standpoint, it is perhaps more impressive to write that Gori was "burnt down, pillaged, and reduced to a ghost town" than to report that it has suffered some bombing, but is still largely intact.

The more fundamental issue, however, is one not of genre but of partisanship. For when BHL turns up in a war zone, he typically does so as what the French call an "intellectuel engagé": a "politically-engaged intellectual" -- the champion of a cause, in effect. It was this same partisan spirit that during the Bosnian War permitted Lévy to denounce Serb "barbarism," while remaining oblivious both to the presence of and the abuses committed by the thousands of foreign mujahideen fighting on the Bosnian Muslim or "Bosniak" side. (On this subject, see John R. Schindler's recent book "Unholy Terror: Bosnia, Al-Qa'ida, and the Rise of Global Jihad".) Somewhat ironically in light of Lévy's reputation as "pro-American" and a supporter of the "war on terror," one of these foreign mujahideen whom BHL managed not to see, the Bosnian War veteran Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, would go on to be the principal Al-Qaeda coordinator of the 9/11 attacks.

John Rosenthal is a World Politics Review contributing editor.