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.