How To Be A War Journalist: A Handy 8 Step Guide

Scroll this

War correspondents aren’t the most fun journalists to read. After a few years watching people go from being humans to being parts, they’ve lost the plot when it comes to what war’s about. They look right past the glory, and end up staring straight into the abyss.

Not sure what I mean?

I refer you to Ernie Pyle, a war correspondent during World War II. Who would have been a hoot at Beatnik parties in the 50s, if he’d lived that long. Sounds like he was ready to go anyway.

For me war has become a flat, black depression without highlights, a revulsion of the mind and an exhaustion of the spirit.

Jumping forward a few years, Joe Galloway, the guy who co-wrote We Were Soldiers Once…and Young, had this to say about wars and some of the people that cover them.

In every war there are always correspondents who walk this road; men and women whose fear of death is overcome by a fear of never having known the truth of war. The numbers are always disproportionate and they grow more so as rules and pools and fools proliferate.

That’s a guy who needs to take it down a notch.

And there are few journalists more associated with the work of covering modern war than former Marine C.J. Chivers. From this interview, sounds like the man lost his oorah.

And so I go to these places and just feel bad. Like really bad, down to the bone, pretty much every time. And that’s not saying there won’t be good days, good moments, good hours, there won’t be lives snatched from death, won’t be people saved, acts of kindness – there will be. There’ll be all sorts of goodness set against this awful canvas. But the direction is still almost always downwards, and the popular discourse about it…is always almost wrong too, and almost always culturally policed by the participants or even the non-participants, to try and warp the story into their narrative…the experiences aren’t fun. War correspondence, war journalism, is just a horribly overrated profession.

That’s what a dead guy and a couple of former war journalists sound like.

Which is why, in 2018, it’s refreshing to have new voices when it comes to covering war.

Voices less encumbered by bias. Or experience.

Who see war for how much fun it can be.

I felt like a kid in a candy store.

That’s Blake Essig, intrepid reporter from Alaska, embedded with troops in Afghanistan. His “Reporter’s Notebook” should serve as the model for journalists wondering how to cover America’s longest war.

Or any war.

Because Blake’s ready to tell the untold stories. Stories many overlook. Like that IT was bad for the clown business.

So if you’re thinking about covering all the wars, here’s eight things to remember. Print it out. Take it to the field with you.

And do it like Blake.

1. Name drop spec ops early and often

As a reporter, I’ve flown in Black Hawks before, but there was something almost electrifying about this experience. I felt like a kid in a candy store. To fly through Afghanistan in the dead of night, manned by two gunners, all while sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with soldiers from Special Forces, was pretty darn cool.

Those beards? The burliness? Spend enough time with those-who-have-no-nametapes, and we all feel like a kid in a candy store. A candy store with jar after jar of testosterone-y goodness.

People love to hear about the Special Forces, so this is a good start. And whenever possible, tie in military equipment. Readers will eat that up.

2. Give the youth a voice

The one person who made the biggest impact on me is a young man who I can’t name. He’s an Afghan translator who is risking his life by working for the U.S. military. He says education means opportunity, and opportunity means change. He’s a young man I found to be incredibly wise beyond his years– one I will never forget.

It’s pretty normal to not be able to name the people you meet in Afghanistan. Most of them have just the one name anyway, and it’s pretty unpronounceable. Even the ones that aren’t risking their lives as interpreters.

The young ones are always so wise. Imagine what a world this would be if everyone remembered that education means opportunity.

With people like Unnamed Translator here working for Afghanistan’s future, things will be fine.

3. Let them know how pretty war can be

I can honestly say I’ve never seen the stars shine so bright. It was a beautiful sight to see in the middle of a war zone.

Missing from the coverage of people like Galloway, Chivers, and Pyle is more appreciation for the beauty around them. Reading their accounts of war, one gets the sense that they were too wrapped up in stories about people shooting at other people. Or something something war ugly.

They got so caught up in the scenes in front of them, they never took the time to take in the scenery.

So look at more stars.

4. Never let them forget where you are

Despite the beauty of the snow-covered Hindukush mountains, the realization that you’re surrounded by insurgents who want you dead, was never lost on me.

My favorite experience during my time in Afghanistan was the 24 hours we spent at Outpost Mad Dog in the Mohmand Valley surrounded by insurgents hiding in the hills.

Always temper your nature walks with a reminder that you’re on the on the edge of danger. Never lose sight of the fact that you’re in a warzone. And never let the reader forget, either.

5. Break down all the barriers

We joined a team with a few Americans, Ugandans and an Afghan translator, and while collectively we spoke several different languages, we all understood the language of soccer. We played until it got dark that night, and had an absolute blast. It wasn’t about winning or losing, it really was all about the friendships made on the field.

We only played that one day, but it was enough. It was enough to break through any barriers that might have separated us otherwise.

An American, Ugandan, and an Afghan translator walk onto a soccer field. At the end, it “wasn’t about winning or losing.” Has to be the greatest metaphor for America’s longest war yet.

Make sure that any small events get expanded to draw large conclusions.

About things like cultural barriers and the like.

Bonus points if you can work the unifying power of sports in there somewhere, too.

6. Remind them how we’re all the same

It was a moment that reminded everyone in the room that, even though war is going on all around us, we’re still human beings.

I have no words.

Peak war journaling.

7. Find out what the generals think

We also discussed the recent bombings in Kabul, and why he believes the recent suicide attacks prove that the Taliban and other insurgents are on the verge of defeat.

Most of your compatriots spend too much time talking to junior officers, NCOs, and soldiers. It’s been done. We all know what they think. That’s not how you get that Pulitzer.

Help us all learn what’s really going on by finding a general officer who wants to bend your ear.

Extra points if he works for the host country’s military, like Lt. Gen. Mohammad Zaman Waziri here. Who unlike most Afghans has more than one name.

8. You’re living every kid’s dream: own that

Once on the ground, this outpost is exactly what I imagined the war to look like.

War should always be just like you imagined.


I Sometimes Talk About Other Stuff

If you like what I do here on Afghanistan, check out the 5 NatSec Things newsletter.

Every weekday I take a look at war from the cheap seats and serve up the five shiniest national security and defense stories of the day.

With, of course, a healthy side of the snark.

Of course that sounds like something you’d like to read.

So sign up.



Submit a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *