It sure seems like a romantic and exciting endeavour, but covering war has got to be more than tough I’ve always thought. Living with a photojournalist, I can feel the psychological effects of death and destruction radiating from this human who has witnessed violence and experienced the aftermath of war. But nothing my husband Joseph Wenkoff has seen, compares to the atrocities recorded by the journalists in this compelling documentary that was short-listed for an Academy Award this year.
“Under Fire: Journalists in Combat” is Toronto-based Martyn Burke’s film on war reporting that features some of the Western world’s best-known reporters, videographers and photographers. It recounts, briefly, the history of war reporting (how it’s become an increasingly lethal profession – two more journalists were killed in Syria last week) and also delves into the psychological trauma that results from witnessing the worst human violence.
How do they cope? One way has been to abuse alcohol as John Steele, author of “War Junkie” recounts. “And that’s why you drink – because if you drink enough, you can’t remember your dreams.” Whether these journalists accept that they suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or not, they are each on their own journey of either self-distruction or healing from the truama of being “prophets.” CBC’s Susan Ormiston and BBC’s Christina Lamb credit their families from keeping them whole. Conversely, Toronto Star photographer Paul Watson, who captured the iconic picture of a dead US soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, admits that though he has a loving wife and son, would still have taken his own life during his darkest moments had he only had access to a gun.
Admissions like his, and that of Chris Hedges who likens the adrenalinalized addiction of war-reporting to a ravaging drug dependence, are the heart and soul of this documentary which pretty much takes all of the machismo out of the profession of covering war.
Luckily, Toronto psychiatrist Anthony Feinstein offers 24-hour emergency service to journalists like photographer Finbarr O’Reilly who has suffered from disassociative feelings upon returning back to the war-free world.
The insights these men and women learn about humanity are nothing that you and I will know. And although I am grateful that they tell the story of suffering, that’s probably for the best. I’ll leave the Kurtz’ to their hearts of darkness. And as for my husband, thankfully his life is fulfilled with a new baby on the way and the adrenaline pull of conflict is under wraps. For now.
“Under Fire: Journalists Under Fire” is airing tonight on CBC’s digital documentary channel. Click here for more.