Of a Misrata Morning

Posted in: Featured, Moore Thoughts, Uncategorized | By: | April 25, 2011

“There is no such thing as bravery; only degrees of fear.”  – John Wainwright

I have never stopped wondering what motivates war correspondents.

The recent deaths of Tim Hetherington, Sebastian Junger’s colleague in the making of the remarkable Afghanistan documentary, “Restrepo,” as well as Chris Hondros, whose photos of the war in Libya are beyond startling, has me contemplating again the rationale for putting their lives at risk to tell a story. Perhaps, I am a coward; I never thought a story was worth dying for. Or maybe Hetherington and Junger and Hondros believe the story is worth the calculated risks. Dying might be compartmentalized and left out of their calculus but that seems unlikely. You can, of course, only tell the tale if you are living. Hetherington and Hondros died during an assault on the Libyan town of Misrata, and they became a story; a very sad one.

Casualty of War

Journalists in war zones provide invaluable information to cultures in conflict. Political opposition to the Vietnam War reached a level of criticality in part because of network television’s film cameras turning the conflict into history’s first “living room war.” Seymour Hersh’s reporting on My Lai meant that we all had to confront the horrors of what was being done in our name. Pick a war and there are names of journalists associated with its prosecution. They might be small print names in bylines from newspapers or high-profile reporters convinced there is romance and value in writing about our bloody battles. There are also reporters like Judy Miller, late of the New York Times, who did such a shoddy job of gathering information that she helped lead a nation into another bad war.

I wrestle with how a person makes a choice to take the risk of working in a war zone and where they derive personal value from the experience. I see the importance of the public service. I was in the streets of Washington, D.C. for several protest marches against the Vietnam War and I doubt I would have been driven to join the masses were it not for what I had read in the papers and seen on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. But why did the reporters who put their lives in jeopardy to provide me that information willingly endanger themselves? I realize, in one sense, the answer is obvious but in other regards it is less clear, psychologically, why one is willing to risk their chance to live to convey information.

Always in the Midst of Chaos

I was also in Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador for a short time during those civil wars and considered myself barely functional. In the hotel, there were often correspondents and photographers drinking themselves into a stupor for various reasons. There were also more of them that were out in the jungle walking with rebels and government forces to try to acquire a story. The conversation at the bar frequently turned to the disappointment felt when crews returned from a week in the bush without any “bang bang.” The political context never seemed as important to some of these reporters as the drama of the gunfire.

I was particularly distressed by a late thirties TV photographer named Roberto, who worked out of Miami. He said he went from war to war, fight to fight, and could not imagine a different life.

“I don’t get it,” I said. “Why?”

“I can’t explain it,” he answered. “All I know is that the first time a bullet whizzes past your ear it changes your life.”

“Yeah, well, the first time it whizzes into your ear it changes it, too,” I said.

Roberto laughed. “I hear what you’re saying, my friend, but there is something addictive about this. It’s adrenaline and dramatics and everything. It’s like you’re living a movie. Plus, I make a hell of a lot of money.”

In the glory days of TV news, before cable and the Internet, photographers on international assignments and presidential campaigns were able to get their hourly pay scale to a level they referred to as “golden time.” The first 10 hours of overtime were paid at one and a half times the hourly rate, the next 10 at double time, and the subsequent hours were all at quadruple their hour wage, which came to be known as golden time because every hour after a certain total, even when sleeping, was logged at the big dollar tally. There is not, however, enough money at any scale to make such risks viable to those of us who consider ourselves even marginally sane.

Victims of My Lai Massacre

There is, however, no shortage of people willing to testify to the thrill of being a target. In “Restropo,” one of the US soldiers looks at Hetherington’s camera and says, “A firefight. It’s like crack. Bungee jumping or kayaking. Whatever. There’s no rush like being shot at.”

Martin Bell, a long time BBC correspondent, told me in Nicaragua that money had very little to do with the allure of combat reporting; it was a thing he almost could not name. Bell had stood in the streets of Managua as the Sandinistas and the Contras fought for control and the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza unraveled.

Felled on Camera

“It’s just anarchy that I love,” he said. “I know it’s stupid. And it’s dangerous. But the sense of anything goes, that everything is falling apart, is just intoxicating to me.”

I was staring up at a ridgeline on the Nicaraguan border and scrub brush and palm trees were turning into Sandinista rebels in my imagination.

“I don’t know, Martin,” I said. “I think you’re a little crazy.”

“Of course, you have to be. But that doesn’t mean the work isn’t important.”

Unequivocally, Martin was and is right. When Daniel Ortega formed a new government in Nicaragua, Bell became bored and moved onto the next conflict and then the one after that. In Bosnia, Martin Bell made history when he was injured by shrapnel from a grenade while doing a live report on BBC television. Such a thing had never happened before in broadcasting. The empathy for Bell was so great that he rode its crest to an electoral victory and became a Member of Parliament, and subsequently, a UK Ambassador.

The saddest of these war correspondent yarns, for me, is about Margaret Moth. I met her in sedate Austin during a session of the inane Texas legislature. How she came to cover such an undertaking as a state legislature, I will never know. She liked punk music and raves and dyed her hair jet black and chased men half her age, very successfully. Margaret was a New Zealander and had come to Texas to do TV news after hitchhiking around the world with her mother, taking tramp steamers from Third World countries to reach new continents.

"Completely, utterly, fearless"

She ended up at CNN and was in Bosnia when a sniper shot her through the window of a car that was clearly marked as conveying journalists. The round took off her lower jaw and all of her teeth. The network moved worlds to keep her alive and get her out of the country. Margaret underwent dozens of operations to reconstruct her face but she survived and could hardly wait to get back to Bosnia. The compromise with her editors was that she return to the Paris Bureau and take intermittent, instead of full-time assignments in the war zone. A bullet didn’t take her, though; Margaret was dropped by cancer.

I have worked around many war correspondents like Margaret. I know them and yet I don’t understand them. But I am grateful for their courage.

It has obviously changed the world.

Leave a Reply