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war stories fall 2011Prizewinning journalists Jon Lee Anderson from The New Yorker and Helene Cooper from the New York Times visited the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for the curriculum in Global Studies’ Spring 2011 War Stories Speaker Series.

The lectures drew large crowds from both the university and local community as the speakers discussed their experiences reporting from war-torn regions across the globe. Andrew Reynolds, chair of the curriculum in Global Studies, attributed the enthusiastic response to the program to the relevance of the dialogue.

“We’re all so interconnected, and these events around the world affect us economically, politically and socially,” Reynolds said. “The world is a much smaller place, so understanding the rest of the world is crucial.”

 Jon Lee Anderson

andersonAnderson had just completed a series of assignments in the Middle East, Africa and India when he visited UNC on February 3rd. The following week, he planned to catch a flight to Egypt to report on the Arab Spring revolution there. His discussions on conflict were, as a result, filled with a unique insight, informed by personal experience and a thirty year history in the field.

Anderson was born in California but raised and educated across the globe as the son of a diplomat. He began his career in journalism in 1979 as a reporter for the Lima Times in Peru, and in the following ten years covered Latin America for numerous news sources including Time Magazine, Harper’s, The Nationand Life. His desire to understand and tell the stories of our world led him to report from warzones such as Somalia, Liberia, Venezuela and throughout the Middle East, and to profile leading political figures, including Fidel Castro, Hamid Karzai, Augusto Pinochet and Hugo Chavez.

Anderson is also the author of the best-selling and definitive biography of Che Guevara, first published in 1997, Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life.  He has received several awards for the courage and empathy of his work. Most recently, he was awarded the Robert Spiers Benjamin Award from the Overseas Press Club for his article, “Gangland,” about Rio de Janeiro’s underworld.

anderson 2In a brown bag luncheon for faculty and graduate students and later a public lecture to over 150 guests, Anderson described the realities of insurgencies and war. When asked about the meaning and justness of combat, his response was matter-of-fact. All the rebels, terrorists, freedom-fighters, and soldiers he has met, he stated, subscribed to a certain faith—whether religious or ideological—that sanctified their actions.  “But war is just killing people,” he said.

In addition to discussing his experience reporting from war-torn regions such as Libya and Iraq, Anderson spoke about the long-term effects of violence shaping global interactions today. He pointed to the civil wars of Central America as a key instigating factor in the current drug wars of the region.

And when he speaks, it pays to listen.

anderson 3“[Anderson’s] been the main person opening our eyes to what’s going on in Afghanistan,” said Reynolds, in an interview with the Daily Tar Heel.

But the same could be said about any of the countries from which he has reported. A week before speaking at UNC, Anderson wrote a feature article for The New Yorker on the underreported aftermath of the Sri Lankan civil war.

“His breadth of knowledge of the world is unrivaled,” said Reynolds. “He gives us, in much better color, an understanding of the complexity of the world.”

A complexity Anderson insisted is not often fully appreciated. He pointed to the recent uprisings in Egypt as an example, stating that America was partially responsible for the events, having funded the Egyptian dictatorship for thirty years.

But with limited resources for news organizations and an increasing emphasis on quickly written, easily digestible articles on fewer issues, he admitted the lack of in-depth understanding on events across the globe is not surprising. Most foreign correspondents have a matter of days to acquaint themselves with an entire political and geographic history, before they are required to produce in quantity.

However, the real travesty in the news industry, Anderson claimed, is what does not make it to print: the conflicts that are too expensive or too distant or too difficult to cover. Those are the stories he most feels the need to write, for fear they will otherwise never be heard.

Helene Cooper

helene cooper

The series continued with Helene Cooper’s March 22nd lecture that captivated a packed audience of over two hundred as she talked about coming to terms with the violence that has plagued her native country, Liberia.

Cooper, author of the acclaimed memoir The House at Sugar Beach, has reported from war-torn regions across the globe for The Wall Street Journal and now writes for the New York Times as their White House correspondent in Washington, D.C. Liberian-born Cooper fled her country at age fourteen to escape the violence of a bloody coup. In the United States, she graduate from UNC Chapel Hill with a degree in journalism and mass communication and has since led a distinguished career as a foreign correspondent and editor.

In her lecture, a remarkably candid Cooper offered insight into the guilt she’d felt at being one of the landed elite in a country troubled by intense poverty and inequalities. As a child, she’d been unaware of the privilege she experienced. She credited the shock of the civil war and sudden realization of her position in society for her subsequent desire to enter the field of journalism. “I never wanted to be ignorant of what was going on around me again,” she said. As a result, she threw herself into writing forthe Daily Tar Heel at UNC, and then into her career as a journalist for various media organizations.

Despite quickly rising to prominence as a correspondent, Cooper refused to write about Liberia. With tears in her eyes, she described how she broke all her ties with her past, ashamed of the land where she was born. Only after a near-death experience while reporting in Iraq was she inspired to return to her homeland and repair the relationships she’d broken years before.

helene cooper 2In spite of the violence that devastated Liberia economically and emotionally for over twenty years, Cooper appeared hopeful about the country’s future. In the question and answer session at the end of her lecture, she discussed how Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s presidency seemed a boon for the war-torn nation, claiming that it is up to the women of Liberia—who suffered greatly during the brutal civil war—to rebuild their country. Not that the promise of Liberia’s future is assured. Cooper was quick to remind the audience that the young adults and youth of the nation have only known violence and death.

Cooper is wary of foretelling the future. She is a journalist, after all, trained to uncover and then report on the issues at the heart of events, not speculate about what might occur. At this, she excels. Cooper reveals in her articles and speech the concerns at the core of incidents across the globe. She is no longer unaware of her surroundings, and thanks to her tireless efforts, neither are her readers.

War Stories is a speaker series hosted by the curriculum in Global Studies and co-sponsored by theCollege of Arts and SciencesUNC Global and the Center for Global Initiatives. The series continued this Fall with a lecture by Dr. Andrew Reynolds on hopes for democracy in Libya and Egypt on October 7th, a discussion with Dr. Sandy Smith-Nonini on the civil wars and subsequent healthcare systems in central America on October 19th, and a question and answer session with Alexandra Fuller, bestselling author of the memoir Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight on November 8th.

For more information on these events, please email