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In praise of war correspondents

Posted: February 29, 2012 - 1:00am

Marie Colvin and I covered our first combat together in 1986, after the U.S. bombed Libya. She was 30, pretty, ambitious and talented. She soon had Col. Moammar Gadhafi and his aides in her thrall and parlayed her many scoops for United Press International into a job as a foreign correspondent for the Sunday Times of London.

I last saw her a year ago, in Cairo during the revolution. Three decades of bearing witness to war showed in her face: I recognized her only from her black eye patch, which she had worn since a hand grenade destroyed her left eye in Sri Lanka in 2001. She seemed sadder and lonelier, and it was no wonder, given what she had been doing all those years.

Other correspondents cover conflicts for a few years and move on. Marie made war a steady diet. She was at the front lines in Iraq (during three different wars), Chechnya, Gaza, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Libya and many other places. She had defied death so many times, she seemed immortal. But then, on Wednesday, she was killed by a rocket while covering the conflict in Syria.

Her death came less than a week after that of Anthony Shadid, also in Syria. The New York Times correspondent — a friend from the old days and a former colleague — had sneaked into Syria to report on the violence there and apparently succumbed to an asthma attack triggered by the horses of the guides leading him back to Turkey.

Marie would not have been in the rocket’s path, and Anthony would not have been near those horses, if they had not considered it their duty to tell the world what was happening to the civilians of Syria.

Anthony’s calling card was his fluency in Arabic and the elegance of his writing. People in the Arab world are often portrayed one-dimensionally in the Western press, partly because correspondents are able to talk to them only through an interpreter. Born in Oklahoma City and educated at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Anthony went to Cairo as a reporter for the Associated Press, determined to master the language of his grandparents and to use his skills to convey the complexity of life in the Middle East. In his quest to do so, he was shot in the shoulder while covering the West Bank in 2002 and captured by the Libyan army and held for a week last year.

I am often asked why journalists willingly put themselves in harm’s way. Anthony was a star, with two Pulitzer Prizes, who had nothing left to prove. Marie, who had been married but was childless, had more combat experience than any general but had no desire to stop.

Part of the reason war correspondents keep going is that there is thrill in danger, a thrill exacerbated by the closeness of death. But the larger, much more important answer is that they feel an overwhelming sense of duty to those whose lives have been torn apart by conflict. Would President Obama have intervened in Libya last year if U.S. journalists had not been covering the plight of the people of Benghazi? Could more coverage from the Western press have whipped up sentiment to stop a genocide in which 800,000 people died in Rwanda in 1994? What will stop the Syrian army from continuing to shell and shoot its own people if the stories of people like the 2-year-old baby whose death Marie chronicled in the days before her own death aren’t being told?

Shadid told NPR’s Terry Gross recently about an earlier illegal foray he made into Syria, saying he felt he had to go because “that story wouldn’t be told otherwise.” That story was so important, he said, “that it was worth taking risks for.”

But not, as war correspondents often say to one another, worth getting killed for. As if we could prevent death by making that distinction.

A number of journalists lost their lives covering the war in Iraq. But not a single U.S. staff correspondent was killed by hostile fire during eight years of war. Now, in less than a year we have lost, among others, photojournalists Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros in Libya, and Anthony and Marie, along with French photographer Remi Ochlik, in Syria.

Losing these courageous journalists is tragic. But there is also reason to worry about another tragedy in the offing: the pulling back of media outlets from covering wars.

Part of the reason is cost. Covering wars can be expensive, as we discovered in Iraq. There, Western news agencies took serious security precautions, buying expensive armored cars, hiring armed guards and carefully calibrating their reporters’ movements with the help of security consultants. That wasn’t feasible in fast-moving Libya, and it is impossible in Syria, where reporters have to operate mostly undercover because of restrictions on their movements.

Still, some editors, concerned about safety and facing shrinking budgets, have begun to pull back. Indeed, Marie’s editor told her mother he had told her to leave Homs, that it was too dangerous. Marie had promised to leave after one more day. Now, with Homs surrounded and without a functioning morgue, it is unlikely she’ll return home even in death.

No editor wants to place a correspondent in jeopardy. But I know that Marie and Anthony would not want their deaths to be used to justify retreating from dangerous but important journalism.

• Phelps, an editor in the Los Angeles Times’ Washington bureau, covered the Middle East for Newsday from 1986 to 1991.

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