It's no surprise war correspondents also experience the two so-called 'signature wounds' of this era's conflicts -- PTSD and TBIs as well -- they're exposed like service members are, admittedly for shorter times, to the same stressors in the war zone.
The McCormick Foundation is hosting a symposium this coming November in Washington, DC on war reporters and PTSD; the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma ("a resource for reporters who cover violence") has already covered this ground exhaustively and well, even issuing a set of guidelines on how not to make the problem worse. Michael Samstag's documentary about combat reporters, "War and Truth," offers opportunities to see the toll embeds have taken on journalists in recent wars. Ashley Gilbertson, combat photographer and outstanding writer, is no stranger to the concept of PTSD, and has both shown and told about it compellingly. (His article, "The Life and Lonely Death of Noah Pierce," is one of the best articles about veterans, PTSD and suicide in print.) Kathy Dobie, who's written two of the best pieces about the same topic, above, here and here -- understands the concept on a personal level as well, which is perhaps how she can be so empathic in print. And favorite journalist -- and Iraq war vet himself -- Carl Prine wrote tellingly lately about his own head injuries suffered in combat, before needing to take a break from writing about it for while.
Robert Capa, the famous combat photographer who photographed in five(!) wars, and later went on to found the photo agency Magnum, shot photos during the D-Day invasion of Normandy, even under heavy fire. He was once quoted as saying, "If your photographs aren't good enough, you're not close enough." The same impulse is shared of course by war reporters; and whether you're photographing or writing about combat, you're liable to be deeply affected by it in many of the same ways that veterans are.
In the next few posts, we're going to look at someone who was exposed at length to combat in World War II -- the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ernie Pyle -- and some of his observations about what he saw and how it changed him. It's more than a little ironic that he once wrote a friend, "If there's one thing in this world I hate and detest, it's writing about the Army" -- though he had published extensively beforehand, his columns written while embedded with the infantry in both theaters of World War II gained him a worldwide readership and a devoted following, along with a sense that nobody covered the little guy like Ernie did -- perhaps because he identified with him so much and so well.
As the Dart Center says, "Journalists who are sensitive to the suffering of others and understand the complexity of emotional trauma are often able to write about traumatic experiences in a way that is informative, engaging and often helpful to readers." This is the case with many of today's war reporters, and it was certainly the case with Pyle. A simple comment by Philadelphia artist George Biddle, who traveled to the war zone and sketched Ernie Pyle on assignment, testifies to his appeal across the years in a way nothing I've read elsewhere has done. If you've not read much of Ernie Pyle, it may not resonate with you; if you have, however, I expect that it will:
"June 15. This morning I did a drawing in red sanguine of Ernie Pyle. I only put into it, I am afraid, a small part of his rare personality. He seems Yankee to the core, though hailing from Indiana farm stock. Ascetic, gentle, whimsical, shy. Frugal in his habits. Like so many Americans, his expression is fundamentally sad, yet full of tenderness. Of course a stubborn, thin-lipped individualist, and probably hard as granite under his timid manner. I like to think of him as he sits on the beach toward sundown, a white and slender Gandhi, swathed in towels and wrappers, for he hates the cold as much as he fears the sun. He does not swim and dislikes bathing. He sleeps three hours each day; reads for three hours; and then, being at his wits’ end what to do, he sits down and writes a column. He puts his whole life into his column: his shy love of human beings, his tenderness, and his hard, salty, Indiana-farmer humor.”