War Journalism Through History

When I was studying my university undergraduate and dreaming of my career as a free-lance writer, I spent a few months considering becoming a war correspondent. Thanks to my poor cooking at the time, I already looked dishevelled and gaunt, and found the idea all rather glamorous. I imagined myself like Sean Penn in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: worldly, weary and wise. Part of me knew that this romantic vision was a myth. But it was confirmed when I started reading more about the lives of war journalists, and their incredibly dangerous (but terribly important) profession. It was an idea brought up all over again when For Pity Sake recently published Peter Yeldham’s latest fiction work, Above the Fold. Peter’s central character Luke, a young and promising journalist, watches as his country, family, lover and circle of friends are all shaken by World War 2. Many things have changed for war journalists since that time, but a lot has stayed the same.

It’s hard to argue that today’s correspondents aren’t in more danger. Veterans generally cite the Bosnia war in the 90’s as a turning point, where journalists were no longer considered off-limit targets. Recent years have been measured as some of the worst years on record for journalists killed in the line of duty. Horrific reports have emerged from Syria, where press have apparently received no or little protection. Most recently, Australia has watched the drama of journalist Peter Greste’s arrest in Cairo, and eventual safe release to Australia in January 2015.

Part of the danger comes from the economics of modern journalism. A full-time war correspondent is an expensive exercise, and many news outlets out-source the job to free-lancers. Of course, anyone with a phone and a plane ticket is qualified to be a free-lancer (‘War Tourism’ is actually a thing now, believe it or not), and plenty of lunatics have been attracted to the danger, mis-guided by an askew moral compass and an extreme case of social media self-indulgence. But for those actual, hard-working, free-lance journalists, the crowded marketplace means more competition and lower wages. Bigger risks are taken in search of a better story.

Much of the ‘raw and gritty’ story-telling that we expect from contemporary war journalism was begun in World War Two, with journalists like the fictional Luke. Journalists weren’t typically allowed on the front lines in World War One, and censorship was rife on all sides. But things changed in WW2. Radio was now a part of mainstream culture, allowing for the first steps towards live combat reporting. Some soldiers also served as part-time journalists, like the cartoonist Bill Mauldin.

Mauldin’s cartoons would win him two Pulitzer Prizes, and allowed the American public to see the war through the eyes of his two characters Willie and Joe, two tired infantry troops bravely facing up to the war’s challenges, which often included the army’s bureaucratic incompetence. This is a historical first and an important changing point: journalism becomes a mean of expressing the moral complexity of the war. Journalists are given the right not only to comment on the evils of the perceived enemy, but is also able to aim criticism at the home government, and ask pressing questions that can often change the tide of battle. This seed of journalistic rebellion would flower in the Vietnam War and contemporary conflicts, where journalists are often just as frequently questioning the home side’s soldiers actions as the enemies.

All of this made me pause before jumping on a plane, armed with a Twitter acount and an inflated sense of heroism. War journalists are often a thankless task, but they are the narrative constructors of humanity’s darkest times, and thus the central communicators that can hopefully steer us towards a more peaceful future.

Peter Yeldham’s Above The Fold presents a rich, well-researched story on the life of an Australian war journalist in World War 2. Partly based on Peter’s own experience, it offers a window into an important time in the journalistic history that lay the foundation for contemporary correspondence.