The Itch


It is a paradox of war that some people who have lived through its slaughter and madness never lose the itch to go back and live through it again. Some soldiers feel the pull, lured by memories of the intense bonding. Medical professionals and relief workers feel it too, still carrying the images of the wounded they savedand lost. And some reporters also have the craving because war is life’s most primal story. I, for one, still hear the siren call.

One modifying remark: Most people who have survived war have little or no or minus desire to relive the experience. Second, I really can speak only about reporters, for it’s the only skin I have.

Why have I chosen to write about this phenomenon of attraction to war? We journalists so rarely explain ourselves to our audienceperhaps in fear of letting you see, heaven forfend, our fallibilitythat a gulf has widened between us and the public. I thought a little self-examination might help people better understand what they’ll be seeing and reading in the days of war ahead.

Firstthough you probably already know thisa lot of the people reporting on the war have no firsthand experience with it, especially those working from air-conditioned television studios an ocean and continent away from the fighting. Probably they should begin their reports with some kind of ignorance acknowledgment, but no matter, they are harmless if you hit the mute button. Reporters in the war zones are, for the most part, quite different. Some are new at it, as we all were, but they won’t be innocent for long. War vastly speeds up the initiation process. Clears the mind of flotsam too. Journalists are already among the allied casualties.

My own initiation happened in Laos in 1970. The Laotian government flew a small foreign press group by helicopter to a tiny, half-abandoned town with dirt streets that was essentially encircled by the Communist Pathet Lao. After touring the town we returned to the makeshift airstrip to fly back to Vientiane. Several townspeople were waiting there, hoping to escape with us. As the chopper revved up, they rushed for it. I was blithely standing off, taking pictures of the scene. Then a puff of dirt and smoke suddenly kicked up 50 yards to the left of the chopper. I kept clicking. Another puff went up 50 yards to the right of it. I realized my colleagues were screaming at me. I ran hard and jumped on with the aircraft two feet off the ground. I learned that day about the military art of “bracketing” a target. The two “puffs” were aiming rounds fired from mortars in the surrounding hills; the next one presumably would have landed in the middleon the helicopter.

I learned two other things that day as well. One was that not all people, including journalists, behave well under stress. As I was dashing toward the helicopter, an aged and wispy Laotian woman was struggling to climb on. A reporter already on board kicked out with his combat boots and tried to dislodge her. Others lifted her aboard. She clutched my hand through the entire flight, and when we set down in Vientiane, she knelt and kissed the tarmac. The rest of us never discussed the incident with the reporter in combat boots.

The day’s other lesson was the adrenaline rush that comes after you emerge alive from an incident that could just as easily have killed you. After this happens to you a few times, subconscious notions of immortality may begin to rattle around in your psyche.

Beyond the adrenaline high that fuels this news-gathering drive, there are other motivations, such as career advancement and the urge to beat the competition to a story or at least out-report them. After all, if a conflict involves American troops or interests, rightly or wrongly that war will likely be the biggest story around, since the United States is now the world’s dominant nation. All these factorsnarcissistic and self-referential as they arehelp explain the draw that war can be.

I always know when the itch is at peak levels because, even when I’m in denial about it, my phone will ring and an old colleague with the fever will be on the other end. It began happening early last week, as the attack on Iraq approached. Norman Lloyd, the best combat cameraman I’ve ever known, needed to talkjust as I did. We tiptoed slowly up to the subject, which was how we felt not being there. Disoriented, we agreed. More than a little irrelevant. So far away from the scene of the story. Norman is still covering stories, for CBS’s 60 Minutes. But not combat. “I know I could go if I wanted to,” he said, “but then”here he broke into laughter”then I think about my knees and whether they could still handle jumping down from tanks.”

Friday afternoon in the Voice office, as I was writing this piece, people gathered around a television set to watch the opening air blitzkrieg of Baghdada mesmerizing, death-delivering son et lumire spectacle. All of this came to us live and in color, with a little box at the bottom of the screen flashing the latest stock figures from Wall Street. The figures seemed to rise with each explosion and plume of flame.

So why the reporter’s urge to be near that carnage? I can only tell you that after a reporter has tasted the war experience and acknowledged to himself that many of the reasons he gets gratification from it are narcissistic, he may still discover deeper reasons for keeping at it. This may sound corny, even naive, but a reporter can come honestly to believe in the importance of delivering the full face of warfamilies decimated, bent refugees walking in endless streams, children orphaned, uplifting acts of honor and friendship, unspeakable acts of cruelty and depravity, bravery, betrayal, human lives saved by Samaritans, human beings lying in pieces from explosive projectiles. People should have to look upon all of that.

If ours is truly a democracy, the people should be told and showneven if they wish to turn their eyes awayexactly what is being waged in their name. No sugarcoating. No sanitizing. Just a faithful picture of the wild convulsion that is war.

So far, the Pentagon’s about-face decision this time to allow journalists to accompany battle units is a vast improvement over the sequestered and censored conditions of the first Gulf War in 1991. America is seeing war almost in the raw, and while the pictures and words are often unsettling, they may be helpfulin the new world of scarinessto our coming-of-age.