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

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

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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.

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."

Burke says that soldiers try to impose order out of what they see, while journalists try to make sense out of what they see. Yet what both see ultimately are unforgettable, horrific realities that change them. Both see friends fall in combat. Burke notes that, like soldiers, combat journalists can suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder—"whether you're a soldier or a journalist, the disease is the same, the symptoms are the same."

According to Burke, many news organizations were hesitant to acknowledge the problems their employees were facing in the past, but that is starting to change now. As Reuter's photojournalist Finbarr O'Reilly explains in the film, "It was a very macho business, and it still is to some degree. But there's a greater understanding now, I think by the institutions, that they need to look out for their employees." It was Reuters' own combat-journalist hotline that directed O'Reilly to help, which came in the form of Dr. Anthony Feinstein.

A pioneer in the research and treatment of combat journalists, Feinstein co-produced Under Fire, and he appears in the film. In one scene, he conducts a therapy session with O'Reilly over the phone as the photographer prepares to enter a combat zone in West Africa.

Feinstein's work has been instrumental in publicizing the psychological hazards inherent in combat journalism. In a recent conversation, he told me that proactive news outlets now send journalists to "hostile environment training," where they are equipped with important skills before they enter the battlefield. "Journalists are put through hell now, boot-camp style," Burke said. "They're taken on a nice little jaunt in the countryside, and suddenly the car is ambushed, not with real bullets obviously, and they are roughly treated. They are dragged out, they're blindfolded, thrown to the ground, dragged away—they're really beaten up. It's become the de rigueur thing to train journalists."

In Burke's analysis, war journalists tend to become nihilistic. He said that he has heard it stated repeatedly, "We started off because we wanted to make a difference. We thought, as young journalists, that we would go over there and bring this to a waiting world." To their disappointment, they find that the waiting world is moderately interested, if at all, and that their reporting does not reduce the incidence of war. "They could report the most amazing, incredible, horrifying, outrageous things, and these same horrifying, outrageous things would happen next month or next year," Burke said, "and once they've seen that for long enough, there is either a kind of a resignation and a tactical retreat to 'normal life,' or there's a horrendous burnout, drug and alcohol syndrome that takes hold. Either one or the other."

Yet, as the film documents, a retreat to "normal life" is often elusive. Hedges attempts to put words to this paradox: "It is possible, as I think was true in my case, to hate war, hate what it did, and yet be utterly bound to the experience and unable to cope outside of the ambiance of war itself."

Burke's film is not about the morality of war. It is about war's storytellers and their burden. "We're like prophets of destruction, of death, of suffering," cinematographer Jon Steele says during the film. "And like most prophets, we don't end up too well."

Under Fire opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, Veterans Day.