War has broken out in a squalid and distant place, which means the world has been reintroduced to the great ludicrous figure in journalism: the war correspondent. To a desk jockey in Washington, war correspondents seem ridiculous glory hounds. They have dry-cleaned their safari jackets for just such a moment and crammed their pockets with packets of Camels and rolls of $20 bills, all the more convenient for bribing purported “officials” of the Northern Alliance. They have expensed tens of thousands of dollars in electronics—satellite phones and cell phones and extra cell phones. The TV correspondents have practiced in front of a mirror to replace their usual toothy concern with world-weary unflappability, endlessly repeating the phrase, “the acrid smell of cordite.” The veteran reporters have rehearsed their shrugs: How many wars have I covered? Oh, I can’t remember, 10 or 11.
This is, of course, totally unfair. In fact, the war correspondent is a victim of literature, the butt of an unfortunate libel. In 1937, Evelyn Waugh permanently tattooed the image of the war correspondent in his novel Scoop, the story of a hapless British nature columnist dispatched to cover a nonexistent war in an inaccessible African hellhole. Scoop broils the journalists as lazy, venal drunks whose “reporting” consists of visiting the hotel bar and whose sole talent is writing vivid dispatches about a war that isn’t happening.
But the dirty secret of war correspondents is not that they are callow, lazy, cynical, lighthearted, plagiarizing, fantasist dipsomaniacal dilettantes. No, their secret is that they’re the opposite: somber, hardworking idealists. More woe than Waugh.
Every war spawns its share of media one-timers and rookies, costumed for the part, who obediently parrot government lies or foolishly parrot enemy ones. But the serious war correspondents are as intense and intrepid as journalists get. The best of them are the best journalists of their time: Ernie Pyle (among others) in World War II; David Halberstam and Michael Herr (among others) in Vietnam; Christiane Amanpour (among others) in Bosnia. You need only skim the wondrous anthologies Reporting World War II and Reporting Vietnam to see that war makes journalists think harder and write better. War correspondents are rarely cowards, and many take risks the rest of us wouldn’t dare: Winston Churchill (yes, he was a war correspondent) escaped a Boer prison camp in South Africa; the Christian Science Monitor’sDavid Rohde sneaked behind Serbian lines to report the slaughter of thousands at Srebenica; the Associated Press’ Peter Arnett stayed behind in Vietnam after Saigon fell.
The notable trait of war correspondents is more often idealism than cynicism. Again and again, war correspondents insist they are “bearing witness.” They feel a compulsion to chronicle the human tragedies of war, whether they are apologists—as Ernie Pyle was in World War II—or desperate critics—as most Vietnam correspondents were. It’s one reason why they keep going back, even when no one pays attention. Most war correspondents are not high-profile celebrities. With the exception of Christiane Amanpour—one of the most famous journalists in the world—the run-of-the-mill war correspondent is much less celebrated than she would be covering something at home. They tend to haunt wretched, nasty places that the civilized world doesn’t care about: Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo. They go there in hopes of forcing the world to pay attention, and most of the time the world is indifferent.
This terminal earnestness can make the war correspondent a tiresome person to be around (at least during peacetime—they’re more fun during the chaos of conflict). They tend to be abrasive and obsessive. Few have a satisfactory family life (some, like Pyle, go to war to escape an unsatisfactory one). They won’t stop working, believing that their moral obligation never ends, that they can’t ignore the suffering. (This is why “Scud Stud” Arthur Kent—who is actually a sterling war correspondent—flamed out of network journalism after the Gulf War. He couldn’t bear the frivolity of regular news coverage.)
Another reason they keep going back: War is thrilling, erotic. It “radiates a deceptively beautiful light,” as celebrated Vietnam correspondent Malcolm Browne put it. War makes them feel more alive. (Yet they know they can leave the danger whenever they want.) And besides, it guarantees great dinner-party stories for life.
From a technical standpoint, it has never been easier to be a war correspondent than it is during this conflict. For a decade, laptops and cell phones have made it possible for print reporters to write from any place on Earth. Now, tiny satellite phones allow a lightly equipped TV correspondent to broadcast from anywhere.
But from a practical standpoint, it has never been harder. The Taliban has locked foreign reporters out of most of Afghanistan. The U.S. military has barred reporters from the bombing runs and special ground operations that define the war. The United States is allowing only the most cursory coverage. So far, there have been essentially just three kinds of war stories, equally unhelpful: information-free dispatches from a carrier “somewhere in the Arabian Sea” about a chin-up squadron of F-18 pilots (first names only, please), Northern Alliance reviews of the day’s bombing runs (lots of B-52s, but mediocre accuracy—two stars),and saucer-eyed profiles of rebel commanders. Is there any man with a gun in northern Afghanistan who hasn’t been anointed the last, great hope for defeating the Taliban and reuniting the Afghan people?
But it’s early days yet. Nostalgists assume war reporting can never be as good as it used to be. Can MSNBC’s war anchor Ashleigh Banfield—a hipster with exactly the same amount of war reporting experience as I do: none—get the battlefield access that Ernie Pyle did? Can someone who’s not allowed to even talk to soldiers challenge military lies as boldly as Herr or Halberstam did? During the Gulf War, American generals stifled the media, imprisoning them in helpless “pools,” but even then correspondents found ways to expose the war. CBS’s Bob Simon spent 40 days in Saddam Hussein’s prisons for sneaking into Iraq. The Washington Post’sCaryle Murphy hid out in occupied Kuwait for a month, avoiding the Iraqi invaders. Michael Kelly skirted American military restrictions by tagging along with Egyptian forces.
So, patience. The best correspondents will find a way to tell us something like the truth of this war. The Taliban have already arrested two reporters who tried to sneak across the border hidden under burqas. But at least one, the BBC’s John Simpson, did manage to cross in and out undetected, and who knows whether others got past the authorities? And we can be pretty sure this war’s correspondents won’t lounge around in bars fabricating stories. After all, they’re in Pakistan and Afghanistan: There are no bars.