Documentary 'Under Fire' Shows That War Is Hell for Journalists

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A new film reckons with the fact that more and more reporters are getting killed in combat zones

Under Fire - Finbarr O'Reilly in Libya 615.jpg

Mercury Media

Combat journalism has come a long way since Mathew Brady first lugged his camera and roving darkroom around the battlefields of the Civil War in 1861. The black and white stills he produced had to be posed because his primitive camera could not render moving objects in focus. Today's photojournalist can capture the sites and sounds of war in full motion and high definition—in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, or any of the planet's other deadly hot spots—and blast them into homes around the globe in real time.

Unfortunately, while modern combat journalists have technological tools and access to battlegrounds that were unimaginable even in the recent past, they also have more casualties than ever. Consider this: "Only two journalists were killed covering World War I. Almost 900 have been killed in the past two decades."

This staggering statistic is highlighted in Under Fire: Journalists in Combat, a provocative new documentary that explores the increasing dangers and psychological costs of covering war. The film features interviews with award-winning reporters from the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, BBC, Reuters, and other top-tier news services, along with the startling images they risk their lives to obtain.

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Under Fire producer-director-writer Martyn Burke is no stranger to covering war. Though well-known for his popular films such as the Abrahams-Zucker comedy classic Top Secret (writer) and Pirates of Silicon Valley (producer-director-writer), Burke seems to be time and again drawn to stories that involve danger. While he watched Americans flock to his native Canada to avoid battle in the late 1960s, Burke, fresh out of school, went on his own dime to Saigon, where he reported on the Vietnam War. For his award-winning 1988 documentary Witnesses, Burke was smuggled into Afghanistan by the Mujahideen in the back of a Red Crescent ambulance to document the Afghan resistance of the Soviet invasion.

Burke might have been drawn into full-time war coverage himself if it weren't for competing passions—namely novel writing and filmmaking—that pulled him away from the firing lines for extended leaves in more peaceful locations.

"Whether you're a soldier or a journalist, the disease is the same, the symptoms are the same."

I recently caught up with Burke near his home in Santa Monica, California, where we talked about his own personal connection to the story told in Under Fire.

Burke would cover war and then come home to make sense of it in his other projects. "But I started seeing guys who did it all the time," he said. "And usually these people paid a terrible price for what they did—if they stayed too long."

Covering war today places journalists in much greater jeopardy than they faced just decades ago. "It used to be that in Vietnam, you could go to a battlefield, go back to Saigon, and sit in the Caravelle Hotel bar with all your buddies and watch the war in the distance, and drink like crazy and go to sleep in a really good room," he said. "That doesn't happen anymore." Today, Burke describes a 24-hour news cycle that demands a constant flow of new and compelling stories. Reporters "always have to get closer, they always have to be first, they always have to be in as dangerous of place as they possibly can." Referring to war correspondent Christina Lamb's comments in Under Fire, Burke adds, "It's not big news if a soldier gets killed, kidnapped or captured—it's big news if a journalist gets killed or captured. So journalists are now targeted way more than they ever had been before."

For those who do survive repeated expeditions into warzones, the psychological costs can be devastating. Former war correspondent and Pulitzer Prize Winner Chris Hedges began in El Salvador in the 1980s. "It had just taken a tremendous toll in every way," he says during the film. "In the same way that a drug physically breaks down an addict, I was being broken down by war."

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Sean Coons is a writer and musician in Redondo Beach, California.

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