Why you should care
The recent murders of American journalists Steven Sotloff and James Foley are heartbreaking. But even during its glamour days, war reporting was hell.
Pooja Bhatia is an OZY editor and writer. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Economist, and was once the mango-eating champion of Port-au-Prince.
The Islamic State (IS) on Tuesday said it had murdered another American journalist, Steven Sotloff, and again broadcast the killing online. We didn’t need a reminder of how deadly war reporting can be, especially not so soon after the IS’s murder of James Foley. We never need one.
Filing from the trenches has always been risky, if perhaps not as risky as it seems these days. Today’s reporters might have flak jackets and malaria meds, but they face a litany of threats beyond the fathoming of the yellowest journalists. Consider: Armed groups like the IS treat journalist kidnappings as a revenue plan; broadcasting their murders is a recruiting tool. Their munitions are high-tech.
Covering state dissolution can be deadly, as shown by the death of longtime war correspondent Marie Colvin in 2012, in Homs, Syria. And many war correspondents these days are freelancers, gigging around dangerous places and entitled to little protection on the job. The conventional wisdom, such as it is, is that investing in war correspondence doesn’t pay.
But there was a time when war reporting sold newspapers. That may have started with the feud between William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World in the late 19th century. Those papers reported — and often manufactured — all sorts of drama and death and hyperbole around the Spanish-American War.
It’s hyperbole, too, to say the two media moguls started that war, but their papers stoked public passion for it. The PBS documentary Crucible of Empire is a fine account of that conflict, and the extant website is a trove of sources.
The European wars of the early 20th century were crucibles of literature. Think of it: Ernest Hemingway was wounded by shrapnel on a World War I battlefield — falling in love with his nurse may or may not have inspired him to write A Farewell to Arms.
There’s a whole collection of Hemingway’s war writings (Hemingway on War, natch), but for straight-up correspondence, Martha Gellhorn, who was married to Hemingway for five years, likely outdid him. She covered at least a dozen major conflicts in prose like this, which describes Barcelona in 1937:
But now, for I don’t know how long — because time didn’t mean much — they had been hitting on the street in front of the hotel, and on the corner, and to the left in the side street. When the shells hit that close, it was a different sound. The shells whistled toward you — it was as if they whirled at you — faster than you could imagine speed, and, spinning that way, they whined: the whine rose higher and quicker and was a close scream — and then they hit and it was like granite thunder. There wasn’t anything to do, or anywhere to go: you could only wait. But waiting alone in a room that got dustier and dustier as the powdered cobblestones of the street floated into it was pretty bad.
Our personal favorite, though, was George Orwell. He showed up to the front lines of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, possessed of little besides a romantic idea about socialism. His nom de guerre was beautifully uninspired: Eric Blair, grocer. He spent six months there, saw two bouts of action and survived to write Homage to Catalonia, his account of the war.
Fast-forward about 70 years to the United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq and the formal debut of the term “embedded reporter.” Embedment was the awkward solution proposed by the Pentagon to news organizations shut out from the action in the Gulf War and the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. The idea was: You can tag along, but you can’t stray.
“Embedding comes at a price,” warned war correspondent David Ignatius. “When you see my byline from Kandahar or Kabul or Basra, you should not think I am out among ordinary people, asking questions of all sides. I am usually inside an American military bubble. That vantage point has value, but it is hardly a full picture.”
And yet there is a lot to see even as an embedded journalist, as Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington showed in their 2010 documentary Restrepo. Junger and Hetherington followed an Army platoon for a year in Afghanistan, fired on daily by an enemy they could not see, firing on targets they could not know and finding strength only in their team. Hetherington was killed in a mortar blast in Libya in 2011. Junger subsequently began an aid-training program for freelance journalists, called Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues.
The Unsung Fixer
Too often fixers are left out of the narrative. These are locals who help foreign reporters navigate, translate and broker interviews for them and often protect them. They’ve got it much worse than Western freelancers, who can always leave war, and whose families can broker better ransom deals. The 2009 documentary Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi, based on the real-life kidnapping of an Italian journalist and his Afghan fixer, is a sad case in point. The journalist was released. The fixer was murdered by the Taliban.