Dedication is required of any journalist, but it takes a special kind of reporter to film and photograph war zones as they rage uncontrollably. I’m not speaking heroically; my intuition tells me these men and women are driven not by prestige but by the compulsion to experience and capture the reality of conflict. I don’t understand this, and I wouldn’t be so arrogant as to even try – not unless I choose to participate in that kind of journalism, which I have no intention of doing. Quite simply, it’s not my calling. I can only respond to what I’m being shown, namely people who intentionally put themselves in harm’s way. Is it for the sake of informing an ignorant public on the horrors of combat? Perhaps. But at a certain point, when you repeatedly put yourself into those situations, it must bypass journalism altogether and become a dangerous physical and psychological fixation.
Under Fire: Journalists in Combat, one of the year’s best documentaries, is devastating yet deeply insightful, focusing less on the mechanics of journalism and more on the emotional aftermath, which is by and large ignored. It was directed by Martyn Burke, who was a photographer and correspondent during the Vietnam War before becoming an author, a screenwriter, and a director. Only someone with his education and firsthand experience could have made this film. He sees the humanity in the journalists he interviews, even if they may not see it within themselves. He exposes their feelings of guilt over personal and professional tragedies, but he doesn’t exploit them. He allows them to talk directly to the camera, to express themselves candidly, to give their perspective on things as best they can.
They tell their stories with a distant matter-of-factness civilians would find disturbing. They have long since come to accept that they can’t be any other way about it. Finbarr O’Reilly says, “You sort of resign yourself to the fact that you’re probably going to get hurt. And you just hope that it isn’t too bad when it happens.” He has been communicating with behavioral psychiatrist Dr. Anthony Feinstein, who agrees that you need that emotional detachment if you’re goal is to be a journalist in combat. Ian Stewart survived a gunshot wound to the head while covering the civil war in Sierra Leone. Susan Ormiston, a mother as well as a correspondent, is grateful to have something to look forward to back at home, although she admits that she feels “a tearing of the soul” just before leaving a war zone. John Steele feels in control when around combat. At one point, he admits that he needed people to die in order for his photos to be properly framed.
The operative term here is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The depression, remorse, irritability, anger, isolation, inability to communicate with others – all of this is examined at length, mostly through the words of the journalists. Nightmares are also common, although they’re not dreams so much as persistent revisitations of trauma, such as colleagues and locals getting killed. Many journalists in this field turn to alcohol and drugs to stop the memories from surfacing. As Steele says, “We didn’t call it PTSD back then. We called it, ‘I need a drink.’” Most are incapable to assimilating back into civilian life, for there’s no adrenaline rush in trivial conversations. O’Reilly likened going back home to having an out-of-body experience, seeing himself from above while never once feeling as if he was there.
Inevitable comparisons will be made to Kathryn Bigelow’s brilliant The Hurt Locker, despite the fact that one is a semi-autobiographical film about a bomb defuser while the other is a documentary about war correspondents. Both are about people who know a job has to be done, believe they’re the best at what they do, and become so addicted to the rush of adrenaline that it consumes them. In one instance, this was done artistically, relying less on dialogue and more on action and imagery. In the other, it’s presented rather clinically, with diagnoses displayed on the screen for us to read and with people who work through their issues by verbalizing them. They both lead to the same conclusion; The Hurt Locker featured a quote that war is a drug, whereas Under Fire has Steele saying, “You never feel as alive as when you’re staring death in the face.”
Of all the testimonials given in Under Fire: Journalists in Combat, none is more compelling than that of journalist Paul Watson. In 1993, while covering the Somalian civil war for the Toronto Star, he photographed the nearly naked body of U.S. Staff Sgt. William David Cleveland being dragged by Somalis through the streets of Mogadishu. One year later, that photo would earn him the Pulitzer Prize. He imagined Cleveland’s reaction: If you do this, I will own you forever. Watson’s reply: Please understand why I have to do this. When it was over, he felt as if he had desecrated something sacred. Although not a religious man, Watson does believe in the sanctity of the human body. The public, and especially Cleveland’s family, agreed. They haven’t forgiven him. More to the point, he hasn’t forgiven himself. At this point, I’m forced to wonder if there’s a point at which the truth comes at too high a cost.