In 1968, a student revolt toppled the old order in France. Some of Europe’s most interesting contemporary thinkers emerged from those heady days of political, cultural, and social ferment—including French-German politician and activist Daniel Cohn-Bendit and philosophers Jean-Paul Enthoven and Bernard-Henri Lévy, who was only 20 years old at the time.
Half a century later, Lévy is one of Europe’s best known public intellectuals and enjoys access to the corridors of power. One French journalist dubbed him “the man who whispers in presidents’ ears,” a description Lévy, who has a self-deprecating sense of humor, does not like.
Lévy is a committed intellectual and prolific writer who honed his ideas on the 1968 barricades. But he also likes to intervene in politics, doubling as an emissary who brings leaders like late Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic or former Afghan military commander Ahmad Shah Massoud to the Élysée Palace. That makes him less a journalist and more an independent diplomat who uses his contacts, power, and money—he was born into a wealthy timber dynasty—to work in conflict prevention and resolution.
“My slant is the inverse of the journalist’s,” Levy writes in his new book, The Will to See: Dispatches From a World of Misery and Hope. “I never set out on a reporting trip without the firm intention of intervening in what I see and changing what I show.” He firmly believes in humanitarian intervention when it comes to protecting civilians and human rights.
His trajectory from one of the so-called soixante-huitards (people who took part in France’s May 1968 civil unrest) to chronicler of war zones started when he lived in Bangladesh after its 1971 war for independence. While other student radicals abandoned their youthful ideals, Lévy continued to gather evidence and bear witness to conflicts where he felt his voice and words could accomplish something useful. He also retained a youthful sense of curiosity and adventure—the same spirit that led a young Lévy to attempt to run away from home and stow aboard a ship to North Africa. (His parents found out, and the trip was aborted.) Today, that sense of adventure is tempered with a just cause.
In some cases, such as Libya—where he encouraged former French President Nicolas Sarkozy to intervene militarily with France’s allies—it ended badly. In others, such as Bosnia, he became a friend to and icon among the embattled Bosnian Muslims when his team were among the first foreigners to enter the besieged city. His later books, films, and plays conveyed Bosnia’s horror and distress. He’s campaigned by traveling to and highlighting crises in Sudan, Eritrea, Ukraine, Somalia, and most recently Kurdistan, where he is a champion for Kurdish independence. In a sense, he uses his fame and glamour to draw a wider audience into conflicts that would otherwise be ignored. At age 73, he is showing no sign of slowing down his advocacy or activism—or writing books or making films. The Will to See is his 46th book.
The book is in two parts. The first part describes his personal intellectual journey: the writers who inspired him and his own personal musings. It’s a meditation on a gamut of greats—from Ulysses and Lawrence of Arabia to philosopher Michel Foucault and author Ernest Hemingway. He recalls how many people of his generation radicalized further: “The most passionate individuals dove headfirst into Maoism,” he writes. Lévy’s trajectory is a different one and begins with his voyage to Bangladesh around 1971. A student of French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, Lévy was swept up in the support for “the birth of a nation.” Althusser advised him to go among “real people,” and that was what Lévy did for the next five decades.
But it’s the second part of The Will to See that is the heart of Lévy’s book. It’s here he does his best work: on-the-ground reporting from the misery of refugee camps on the Greek island Lesbos to his most recent project, supporting the quest for Kurdish independence.
There is his poignant time traveling through the countryside north of Abuja, Nigeria, with embattled Christians who, he writes, are being massacred on a scale “that appears to exceed even what the Christians of the Middle East have undergone.”
There is Kurdistan, where he made a documentary, Peshmerga, in 2016 and where he returns again and again to speak with both Iraqi and Syrian Kurds. “The Kurdish nation has paid too dearly for its endurance and for its unflinching dream of a Kurdistan that is independent, free, and open,” he writes. “Give the Kurds justice. It is time.” The government in Baghdad won’t enjoy this section, but Lévy’s passion is evident.
He goes to Donbass, Ukraine, at the height of the pandemic lockdown. In Kiev, he sits down with former comedian-now-Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in his “ultra-kitschy office,” but Lévy is unsure whether Zelensky is up to the job of disentangling a country from a frozen conflict the rest of the world has forgotten about.
In February 2020, before vaccines were introduced, he went to Somalia, a scary place at the best of times—where hotels are pulverized by car bombs, al-Shabab fundamentalists roam the streets, and violence erupts so quickly there is never time to hide. His prognosis for the battered country is grim.
“After twenty years of futile war,” he concludes on his way out, “al-Shabab still reigns over Somalia.” Finally, he bids adieu to his youth when he returns to Bangladesh. He sees powerful politicians, but he also goes back to the villages. He is appalled by the poverty, which he does not remember having encountered in 1971. “Had I forgotten?” he asks himself. “I have not forgotten anything.”
He frets about climate change in the region. Decades before, “I was one of the first to take up the cause of this cursed and splendid country,” he writes. Fifty years later, he hopes and prays for a country he no longer recognizes.
He never forgets it is only by chance of birth that he isn’t on the other side—as a victim.
Lévy is at his best when he is not conjuring fellow intellectuals but rather writing about what he calls “the forgotten wars.” They are, he writes, “the equivalent … of the blank spots on the map.” He writes, “in the wars I’ve covered, only the sad, shining moments of relief and fatigue after the guns had gone quiet have captured my love.”
This is the interesting thing about the book. Lévy—despite the tide of current wars waging in Ethiopia, Syria, and Yemen; the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict; and warning signs in Bosnia—still has hope that humans can work with fellow humans to resolve conflicts.
Lévy, as he will be the first to admit, has his fair share of detractors who disparage his wealth, his looks, his famous actress wife, Arielle Dombasle, and his always half-unbuttoned, trademark white shirt. I would remind them that Lévy goes to dangerous places and actually puts in the work while many journalists are just armchair analysts. Lévy spends some of his considerable fortune getting on the plane to fly to Darfur or Mogadishu—places that are not comfortable, safe, or easy. He has also donated the profits from his last book, The Virus in the Age of Madness, to non-profit organizations.
The Will to See seeks big answers to impossible questions on humanity, brotherhood, and the concept of just and unjust wars. Is democracy a universal concept? When is humanitarian intervention justified? His overall thesis is the world should never look away, that as human beings, we have a call to action to protect those who are weaker than ourselves. The only position I would disagree with is his stance on Israel, where he is unquestionably Zionist without considering the terrible consequences of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian people.
The Will to See is the testimony of a man whose life has spanned some of the most remarkable moments in history. “Blessed by words … saved by the life of books” and admittedly born “with a silver spoon in his mouth,” he became a witness to some of the 20th century’s gravest atrocities. He never forgets it is only by chance of birth that he isn’t on the other side—as a victim.
Above all, Lévy’s book is about the passage of time—his beloved Marcel Proust, author of In Search of Lost Time, is mentioned—and his own mortality. There is something of author Philip Roth’s bitter musings on life and death in his tone. But Lévy will also be remembered as a reporter who whispered truths not just in presidents’ ears but in our own.