10 of America’s Top War Reporters

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War and news happen around the clock. Over the last 234 years, brave Americans have distinguished themselves writing and shooting photographs chronicling their country’s conflicts. Sometimes giving their lives to get the story, these journalists’ sacrifices make the public pieties of Veterans Day possible. For instance, the Iwo Jima Memorial, a place for patriotic pilgrimage today, owes its heroic angles to Joe Rosenthal’s original, Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph, snapped on the battlefield for the Associated Press. The ironic part: before he snagged a wartime gig with AP, the US Army had refused to let Rosenthal enlist because of his lousy eyesight.

Not all war correspondents were as lucky in life as Rosenthal. Each, however, deserves recognition for service to the First Amendment, an exceptional American invention and, even in the chaotic hell of war, the one worth fighting for the most. After the jump, we look at a few of that right’s best defenders.

Gloria Emerson (1929-2004) spent some of her childhood in Saigon, and returned to Vietnam in the 1950s, freelancing for the New York Times. After stints at Times’ bureaus in London and Paris, she went back to the country when the US intervened in their post-colonial civil war. Determined to reveal the “immense unhappy changes” in the lives of average Vietnamese, Emerson uncovered and condemned a callous culture of “killing at a distance,” whereby stateside Americans failed to comprehend “how huge are the graveyards” that US bombing runs had caused. Later, she discovered the disturbing prevalence of hard-drug use among American GIs, a shocking example of glassy-eyed Yankee dissociation from the carnage the war had wrought.

In 1969, Emerson conducted a combative interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, criticizing their approach to protesting the war from afar. If they had come to Vietnam and played for US soldiers, Emerson thought, John and Yoko “could have stopped the war.” Sadly, after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2004, Emerson committed suicide, terrified that the disease would render her unable to write again.

Edward R. Murrow (1908-1965) got his big break in the nightmare of the Blitz, Hitler’s ruthless air assault on London. “This is London,” was the way Murrow began his radio broadcasts for CBS, ending with “good night and good luck,” an expression Londoners used as a farewell during the air raids. Murrow’s sonorous accounts of the Battle of Britain riveted Americans to their radios, listening to the dangerous drama rumbling across the Atlantic. When he returned home, Murrow received a welcome from President Roosevelt and became one of America’s first news celebrities.

After the Axis attacked, Murrow flew on US bombing raids over Europe, recording his experiences for re-broadcast. His stark, sobering account of the liberation of Buchenwald earned him criticism from some self-styled censors, all of which he dismissed. “I have reported what I saw and heard,” Murrow declared, “but only part of it. For most of it I have no words. …If I’ve offended you by this rather mild account of Buchenwald, I’m not in the least sorry.”

Murrow went on to lay the groundwork for television news. His documentary Harvest of Shame shed light on the plight of migrant farm laborers in the United States, a social justice message that drew the ire of Communist-hunting Senator Joseph McCarthy. After leaving CBS on less than amiable terms, John F. Kennedy appointed Murrow the head of the United States Information Agency (USIA), a public diplomacy outfit that McCarthy considered a Communist-infiltrated threat. Though this might’ve been the perfect appointment for him, garnering prestige and funding for the agency as well, Murrow, a life-long smoker, died of cancer in 1965.

Known mainly for his uplifting brand of Transcendentalist poetry, Walt Whitman (1819-1892) also worked as a journalist and essayist covering perhaps the least pleasant aspect of the American Civil War: the wounded. Fighting in history between the invention of the Gatling gun and the discovery of penicillin, Whitman encountered gravely-injured American soldiers at a make-shift hospital in Washington DC, a building that had been the Patent Office, and wrote about his experiences in an essay he called The Great Army of the Wounded. The most distressing passage describes how the injured soldiers were subject to harsh and arbitrary military discipline doled out by incompetent Army bureaucrats.

“Many things invite comment, and some of them sharp criticism, in these hospitals. The Government, as I said, is anxious and liberal in its practice toward its sick, but the work has to be left, in its personal application to the men, to hundreds of officials of one grade or another about the hospitals, who are sometimes entirely lacking in the right qualities. There are tyrants and shysters in all positions, and especially those dressed in subordinate authority. Some of the ward doctors are careless, rude, capricious, needlessly strict. One I found who prohibited the men from all enlivening amusements. I found him sending them to the guard-house for the most trifling offense. In general, perhaps, the officials — especially the new ones, with their straps or badges — put on too many airs. Of all places in the world, the hospitals of American young men and soldiers, wounded in the volunteer service of their country, ought to be exempt from more conventional military airs and etiquette of shoulder-straps. But they are not exempt.”

Ernest Hemingway did it all, fighting valiantly and writing fearlessly. He drove ambulances during the Word War I as part of the American Expeditionary Force. In the 1930s, after his novels had earned him acclaim and fame, he worked as a journalist and anti-fascist fighter during the Spanish Civil War, sending out dispatches for the North American Newspaper Alliance (NANA). In World War II, military officials who considered him “precious cargo,” kept Hemingway to a landing craft during the main invasion force in Normandy (despite his reports to the contrary). Indeed, his exuberance got the best of him in France when he established himself as the leader of a small contingent of French resistance fighters. A civilian correspondent in the care of a formal army who takes up arms again the enemy violates the Geneva Convention, and Hemingway faced a hearing for the infraction. He avoided imprisonment, however, by assuring his accusers that he was merely working as an “adviser” to French freedom fighters.

Ernie Pyle, 1900-1945, bemused America with the lighter side of the the European theater of war, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1944 for the GI’s perspective on the war. His columns, featured in an archive here, garnered him a devoted following in 300 newspapers across the country. When transferred to the Pacific Theater, however, he let slip that he preferred covering European side of the war. This earned him few friends in the new time zone. After more than a year of having premonitions involving his own death, Pyle met his early end at Ie Shima, an island near Okinawa.

Mathew Brady (1822-1896), called the “father of photojournalism,” perfected the craft during the Civil War, developing pictures of the Union’s political combatants, Lincoln, and his generals in particular. He also immortalized the pained expressions of the war’s countless dead. Such scenes of war had never before been available for public consumption, relegated rather to the imaginations of artists, who more often than not left out the unsavory aspects of a battle’s bloody aftermath.

Michael Herr (1940-) embedded with Esquire magazine during the Vietnam war and, in 1977, produced one of the greatest accounts of the war, going on to assist Stanley Kubrick in writing Full Metal Jacket. A new journalism masterpiece, Dispatches divulged the nerve-rending experience young soldiers shared as a generation caught between the guitar-shredding scream of newborn American pop culture and their invisible foes in invincible Vietnamese jungles. Smoking cigarettes until his lungs felt like “two wet paper bags,” Herr injects himself seamlessly into the story, a Dante without a Virgil, trying to stay alive long enough to make his next deadline.

Marguerite Higgins (1920-1966) was America’s first female combat correspondent, lifting the ban on women writing about war with a single letter that she wrote to General Douglas McArthur, after a lesser general had denied her access to the war zone. McArthur, trigger happy though he was with the military’s newest nuclear toys, responded to Higgins’ bosses at the New York Herald Tribune with a resounding telegram: “BAN ON WOMEN CORRESPONDENTS IN KOREA HAS BEEN LIFTED. MARGUERITE HIGGINS IS HELD IN HIGHEST PROFESSIONAL ESTEEM BY EVERYONE.” Higgins, the Herald Tribune‘s Tokyo Bureau Chief, went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting. Tragically, she died after contracting a vicious tropical skin parasite in Vietnam.

Joe Sacco (1960-) combines comic art and journalism like no other war reporter alive, with a philosophical focus on the impact of conflict on civilians. Sacco’s most famous work, Palestine , tells firsthand the story of Palestinians’ First Intifada against Israeli rule. Based on his travels in the West Bank and Gaza, Palestine (which won an American Book Award in 1996) shows Sacco’s tragic-comic adventure through the dismal slums of the dispossessed. For a conflict so mired in contradiction and complexity, Sacco manages to make plain and clear the human dimensions of the conflict without leveling unfair judgment on either side. Continuing his inimitable style in another region, Sacco wrote and drew Safe Area Gazorde in 2000, an Eisner Award-winning tale of how civilians strove to survive internecine strife during the 1990s. His latest graphic work of non-fiction is Footnotes in Gaza , published in 2009. While it hasn’t won an award yet, here’s its glowing, well-deserved review in the Times.

The story of Daniel Pearl (1964-2002) is unspeakably sad, too tragic to warrant an extended explanation. Pearl, the Wall Street Journal‘s South Asia Bureau Chief, a tenacious reporter, and loving husband/soon-to-be father, was murdered by a gang of terrorists in Karachi, Pakistan in February 2002. Investigating the attempted shoe-bombing of a Paris-Miami passenger flight in December 2001, Pearl was kidnapped and beheaded by an al-Qaeda-connected crew that may have included Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of 9-11. The circumstances of his death are tragic beyond expression or comprehension.

Pearl’s death does, however, serve as example of the kind of risks journalists face in bringing us the news that we so often take for granted. And, to be sure, this is not a talent reserved only for Americans. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 839 media professionals have lost their lives since 1992. Writers, reporters, and photographers around the world endure mortal risk and, sometimes, die in the pursuit of truth. In the spirit of Veterans Day, remember that the next time you see a dateline like Kabul or Baghdad.