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The First Draft

Jason Burke describes how war correspondents benefit from a knowledge of history, and how history might benefit from their work in turn.

A month ago, sitting on a straw stool in a small road-side stall in northwestern Pakistan, I was struck by a four-line article in a local newspaper. The government of the North West Frontier Province, it said, had decided finally to remove the old tank barriers from the Khyber Pass. I smoothed the paper out beside my chapati and dahl and reread it and felt a twinge of nostalgia.

On every one of the dozens of times I have travelled over the Khyber, I had noticed the broken concrete teeth placed in 1979 to stop the Soviet Red Army crossing into Pakistan. From archives we now know that such a plan was far from the Kremlin strategists' collective mind - the troops were in Afghanistan to bolster a shaky Marxist regime against an already raging rural reactionary revolt - but nonetheless Moscow's soldiers had succeeded, at least indirectly, in making their own mark on the rugged, dusty Khyber hills. I liked the idea that events inscribed themselves physically on the ground, a rich sediment of 'what happened to happen' building up over the years and regretted the demolition of the tank traps almost as I would have done that of the Buddhist stupas or the regimental crests painted by British soldiers on rocks beside the road.

Many of the lands I have crossed in a decade or so  as a professional foreign affairs journalist are as rich in history as the Khyber Pass. In Iraq, I looked down on astonishing Babylonian or Abbasid era relics from the open doors of American helicopters. Covering Kurdish violence in Turkey I stayed in a thirteenth-century coaching inn, driving out to cover riots through its arches. In Kabul I watched executions in a football stadium not far from where the British Army had been based in 1849. Where the same sense of history has been missing – in Sierra Leone, for example, or Indonesia – it has been more due to my ignorance than anything else.

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