As this issue of the SRB was wending its way towards publication the death was announced of Marie Colvin, the war reporter. Colvin was in Syria on assignment for the Sunday Times in the embattled, besieged city of Homs. Together with the French photographer Remi Ochlik, who was also killed, Colvin had entered Homs well aware of the danger she was facing. With some thirty years’ experience of bearing witness to man’s inhumanity to man, she was under no illusions about the hazards of her vocation. But still she was prepared to put her life on the line. She wanted to tell the world what was going on. She wanted others to know what she had seen, albeit with one eye, because she’d lost her other one reporting from another conﬂict zone.
Not that there’s any shortage of those. When one war ends there’s sure to be a fresh one starting up somewhere. In his book, Going to the Wars, Max Hastings, the veteran war reporter, relates how he spent a career hopping from war to war. Writing in hindsight, Hastings says, ‘few things are nicer than to recall in middle age, warmth and tranquillity, past moments of youth, discomfort and fear.’ That is a luxury only afforded those who survive relatively unscathed. Too many reporters, however, do not live to tell their tales. Like soldiers and civilians, they are casualties of war, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In this issue of the SRB, David Pratt, himself a distinguished and brave war correspondent, reviews a new book on the war in Afghanistan. As Pratt observes, there are many books of war reportage not all of which are well-written or well-researched. The best, though, such as Tim O’Brien’s If I Die In a Combat Zone and Michael Herr’s Dispatches, both of which are concerned with the Vietnam War, and Sebastian Junger’s War, about the ongoing Afghanistan conﬂict, are not only formidable feats of reportage but can also be classiﬁed as great literature. Such writers – and we could add many more names to the roster – are following in the illustrious footsteps of the likes of Orwell and Hemingway, Vassily Grossman, Anna Politkovskaya and many, many more who could have stayed at home and safe but opted instead to put themselves in the ﬁring line.
Perhaps the ﬁrst modern war reporter was Sir William Howard Russell, famous for coining the phrase ‘the thin red line’, which he applied to the British infantry at Balaclava during the Crimean War. Writing for the Times, Russell’s reports were credited with inspiring Florence Nightingale. In 1854, he gave a ﬁrst-hand account of the Charge of the Light Brigade. Thereafter he wrote about the Zulu War, the Indian Mutiny, the Prusso-Russian War, and the American Civil War, including a vivid and controversial description of the Battle of Bull Run. Having been the only reporter at the Crimean War, he was one of 500 at the American Civil War. Inadvertently, it seems, he spawned an industry and invented a genre.
What makes a good war reporter? It is surely useful if he or she has what Eric Linklater’s Italian soldier, Private Angelo, did not possess, il dono di coraggio, the gift of courage. That is not something that can be taught. A sharp eye, disregard for discomfort, innate intelligence, the capacity to make yourself look inconspicuous, the ability to see things objectively and a touch of madness, are also recommended. Then there is the question of the quality of the writing. War reporting needs to be under rather than over seasoned. The best war reporters are those who tell it straight, recording honestly and without intrusive embellishment what they’ve seen.
One such was Marie Colvin. Another was also American. The name of Ernie Pyle is not much heard these days but during the Second World War, his reports – from Berlin, Tunisia, Italy, Omaha Beach, Normandy – were required and inﬂuential reading. On a brief visit home in 1944 he was welcomed as a war hero which, of course, he was. A year later, he was killed by a Japanese sniper on Ie Shima, a small island near Okinawa where the most bloody ﬁghting between American and Japanese troops occurred. A number of Pyle’s reports are reprinted in the two-volume Reporting World War II anthologies published by Library of America. In the second of these, covering 1944 to 1946, there is a short appreciation of Pyle, a small, bewhiskered, ‘oldish-looking’ man in a woollen cap who, when asked what he thought of the war in the Paciﬁc simply said, ‘Oh, it’s the same old stuff all over again. I am awful tired of it.’ It ends thus: ‘The island probably will be remembered only as the place where America’s most famous correspondent met the death he had been expecting for so long.’