In early 2011, I started seeing things in slow motion. I cried unpredictably. It was the time of the Arab uprisings. Colleagues and friends were getting kidnapped. Some were getting killed.
But still, I went toward the story. The next year, 2012 was one of the deadliest years on record for journalists. It was a huge hit to the “tribe” of conflict correspondents of which I am a part. These are people who choose to go to war, to put themselves at risk. But we also enjoy the role, the adrenaline, the life. Some of us have children.
As I reported in Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria, I recorded the tear-gassings, the gunfire, the explosions. I also turned the microphone on my own life, recording diaries and seeking advice from doctors, scientists and colleagues. My goal was to answer one question: Why do otherwise intelligent people risk their lives, when they don’t have to?
Nearly two years later, in collaboration with independent producer Jay Allison of Transom.org, the result is a documentary radio hour called “Diary of a Bad Year: A War Correspondent’s Dilemma.”
To understand how many of us persuade ourselves to be conflict correspondents, consider a story. It was told to me by a former British soldier, who now works as a security adviser for media companies. She told me this story as we drove through rebel-held Syria.
She was working with a major news organization in Baghdad, during some of the most violent years of the Iraq War. She was a trained medic, and it soon became clear she needed to order some body bags. Iraq is hot in the summer. The logistics of repatriating a body in wartime were a challenge.
To put it bluntly, if someone died, she was going to need a place to store his or her body for a few days, while she worked out how to get that body home. But she knew how controversial this would be. So she ordered the bags and hid them at the bureau. Sure enough, a producer stumbled upon the bags.
And freaked out.
The security adviser tried to explain, but the whole situation ended in a row.
“This is the crux of the problem,” she later told me. “As a soldier, I’m prepared for death. I have to be. I have my will in order, I know exactly what my insurance will cover, I have written that letter to my family — just in case. I make no pretense about the fact that this work could end in death.”
“You people?” she said, referring to journalists. “You are all in denial.”
It’s a story that rings true. Every time I go into a dangerous situation, I try to think of the consequences, but I also have an air of invincibility involved. “There’s no way that could happen to me,” I often tell myself. “I’ll be smarter than that guy was.”
This is why when a journalist dies in conflict, we are outraged. We are furious that they died. We ask for investigations and inquiries. While I know this might be a controversial thing to say, perhaps our anger is misplaced. Perhaps we should all be willing to accept that if a reporter is going into conflict, that reporter might die?
Perhaps instead of pretending this could never happen, we should assume it will happen. We should prepare ourselves. Making this piece was about my own journey, my own decisions, but I also hope it will help the next shift of conflict correspondents, who are going into this for the first time.