There was a time in my life when I considered a career as a war correspondent. There is something in human nature that compels us to want to be where the action is, and nowhere else is the action more intense than in war. Not that I know firsthand. But I considered the option.
I think the first time this notion crossed my mind in any serious way was during the wars in the Balkans. I read an article in a college alumni magazine about a recent graduate who decided that she wanted to cover the war, though she had no experience, no funds and no backing. Somehow she scraped together the money and travelled all on her own, hiking in on foot to the war zone to work as a freelance photographer. I was impressed. She had guts that I didn’t have. Or did I? I could have done the same thing. I was moved by the tragedy unfolding there. I wanted to feel like I was doing something important. But was it worth risking my life over?
As the years went by, I came back to this question off and on many times. I managed to find work as a freelance journalist, writing travel articles and taking photos for some newspapers and smaller magazines. It was a struggle. I knew that there was always a hotspot somewhere in the world. If only I had the courage to march on in there, my career might truly be born.
I used to watch the careers of some of the correspondents that I most admired. One of these has always been Carolyn Cole of the Los Angeles Times. I remember during the early days of the current war in Iraq, when a U.S. pilot was shot down near the Euphrates River in Baghdad. He was apparently hiding out in a stand of rushes along the river, with angry Iraqis searching for him. Right in the midst of it all was Carolyn Cole, snapping photos behind enemy lines. The type of bravery it took for her to be there at that moment astounded me. Just another day on the job, I suppose.
Two of my own personal heroes from World War II were also correspondents. Ernie Pyle famously covered the entire European campaign, only to die when he travelled to the Pacific theater toward the end of the war. Robert Capa was the only photographer to land with the troops on D-Day at Omaha Beach. He shot 106 photos, all but eight of which were later destroyed by a 15-year-old darkroom assistant. Capa survived numerous wars only to retire from the life and go on to found the famous Magnum photo agency. He vowed never to return to a war zone, but eventually boredom dragged him back into it, and Capa died when he stepped on a land mine in French Indochina.
So what is it about this allure of danger? Apparently the constant rush of adrenaline becomes hard to live without. Life off the battlefield just can’t compare.
When I considered the profession, I used the examples of my heroes to help me make up my mind. I greatly admire Pyle and Capa, but I didn’t want to end up like them. I’m just not willing to risk my own life. Maybe I’ll never have that rush of adrenaline, but instead I’ll sit here at home, or in a café, and make up stories all on my own.
All of this comes to mind, of course, as the world of combat journalism mourns the loss of two of its most respected members. Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington were killed last week as they covered the conflict in Libya. These were brave men, trying to make a difference. I respect them greatly. I admire their courage immensely. They obviously believed in what they were doing, and tragically paid the ultimate price. It does make me consider, however, that the career path I have chosen is the one on which I belong. Maybe I’ll get run over by that proverbial bus on my way to the café, but I think I’ll take my chances with that and leave the combat journalism to braver souls than me.