In Harm’s Way  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    TOP OF THE REVIEW    
From AJR,   April 2003

In Harm’s Way   

The importance of war reporting

By Thomas Kunkel
Thomas Kunkel (editor@ajr.umd.edu), president of AJR, is dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     


There was no sound of planes. The morning was still; the place was cool and pleasant.

Then a tremendous flash of light cut across the sky. Mr. Tanimoto had a distinct recollection that it travelled from east to west, from the city toward the hills. It seemed a sheet of sun.

--John Hersey, "Hiroshima"

In 1999, a blue-ribbon committee of newsmen and -women voted "Hiroshima" the most important piece of journalism produced in the 20th century. This 31,000-word story, the harrowing account of how six people survived the ultimate weapon of mass destruction, occupied the entire editorial well of The New Yorker's issue of August 31, 1946, just a year after the atomic bomb was dropped to end World War II.

Like so much of history, it was something of an accident that "Hiroshima" came to be written at all.

As the war in Europe was reaching a climax, The New Yorker asked one of its writers, Joel Sayre, to take on an unusual and daunting assignment: write a piece describing what it had been like to experience the devastating bombing of Cologne, Germany, from the ground. Sayre progressed in fits and starts, but when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed, Cologne suddenly had all the relevance of Agincourt.

Still, The New Yorker's managing editor, William Shawn, believed in the underlying idea. He persuaded John Hersey, a protégé of Henry Luce and a reporter for Luce's Time Inc. empire, to tell the story of Hiroshima from inside the inferno.

In a near-miraculous feat of legwork and deadline writing--because of prior story commitments it was well into the spring of 1946 before Hersey could even start his reporting--Hersey fashioned an account so rich and empathetic that it is as powerful now as the day it appeared, unannounced, to flabbergasted readers.

"Hiroshima" also demonstrated that a skilled journalist needn't have experienced an event firsthand to do great war reporting. A half century later, Mark Bowden proved it again when his Kurtz-like pursuit of the truth of a Somalian firefight resulted in "Black Hawk Down."

It hardly needs to be said that ex post facto reporting of this kind is invaluable, because in many wartime situations it is months, or even years, before the truth of combat can be told. We saw that most recently in the rough terrain of Afghanistan. The clandestine nature of the war against al Qaeda and the Taliban meant that only well after the fighting could journalists gain access to the people and places needed to tell fuller accounts of what transpired there.

Of course, such reconstructions, vivid as they may be, are no substitute for spot news reporting from the front. During wartime, the public wants and needs information that is as fresh as military security will permit. They didn't get it in the last gulf war, where media reports were so controlled by the military as to be virtually stage-managed. In this regard, at least, Gulf War II may prove to be a welcome departure.

The heads of the nation's news organizations, especially their Washington bureau chiefs, are to be commended for pushing the Pentagon hard for better press access this time around. And give the Pentagon credit for adopting a new policy that at least promises to balance the needs of the media with the demands of the armed forces.

"Promises" being the operative word, for no one is sure how it will go until guns start firing. And the combat was beginning just as this issue went to press. With hundreds of reporters "embedded" in military units in the gulf region, it won't be long before we know whether journalists are able to provide unprecedented, even uncomfortably visceral, combat reportage or are instead caught up in a frustrating jumble.

Being embedded means journalists are apt to be more directly in the line of fire than they've ever been. As valiant as are our fighting men and women, reporters too are mustering their courage and facing up to the fact that they might have to make the ultimate sacrifice so that we on the home front can remain informed. The journalists go into battle armed with cameras, laptops and maybe even pencils. We pray for their safety.

It's worth remembering that if John Hersey had actually been at Hiroshima when the bomb hit, he would not have lived to tell his terrible tale.

###