TCS Daily

No Press Box

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - April 9, 2003 12:00 AM

For Frank Schell it had been a frightening day. Covering war for his newspaper had brought him past curiosity, through exhilaration to revulsion and fear. Everywhere he looked there were bodies. Artillery shells exploded uncomfortably close - as if they were seeking him out. Now as he ran toward some smoking buildings, fearing for his life, another exploded right behind him. Schell hurled himself down against a stone wall and lay there for 20 minutes as an artillery duel raged about him.

Somehow Schell survived that day, September 17, 1862, on the bloody battlefield at Antietam, and his sketches of the Civil War continued to appear in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly. He was doing what war correspondents do, and it is a dangerous business.

Eight journalists lost their lives in the Civil War. Only two were killed in World War I, in which the military pretty much kept journalists far behind the front lines. But in World War II, there were at least 66 correspondents killed. The fighting in the Balkans in recent years has taken the lives of more than 50 journalists.

As Nora Ephron once wrote in New York magazine, "the awful truth is that for correspondents, war is not hell. It is fun." Peter Gill, a London Daily Telegraph correspondent in Vietnam said, "there's something fantastically exhilarating about being terrified out of your wits."

But it's not just terrifying. It's deadly. Ernie Pyle, who had written his way through so many battles, took a Japanese machinegun bullet in the head on the beach at Ie Shima on April 18, 1945. Dickey Chappelle, a splendid veteran of several wars, was killed near Danang, Vietnam in November 1965. She was one of at least 45 correspondents killed in Vietnam.

I can't imagine either of these correspondents being astonished about their fate because they were somehow protected as "noncombatants." Which brings us to the whining, bitching, self-absorbed new generation of "correspondents," some of whom seem indignant that war may bring them more than an occasional frisson.

After sitting around in the Palestine Hotel in downtown Baghdad watching bombs fall for a couple of weeks and being escorted to bomb damage sites by the Iraqi Information Ministry, the assembled foreign press had the war come right to its door Tuesday.

It wasn't pretty.

A U.S. tank, its crew, apparently reacting to sniper fire, lobbed a shell into the 15th floor of the press hotel, killing a Reuters cameraman and a Spanish television cameraman. And on the same morning, American missiles or bombs struck an Al-Jazeera television office, killing one of its correspondents.

It was a terrible tragedy, but certainly no worse that a thousand others that have occurred in a wide-ranging combat zone. Immediately the United States was accused of "targeting" journalists. At both the Centcom and Pentagon briefings little or nothing was asked regarding the deaths of more than 120 Coalition soldiers and Marines, but a slew of indignant questions were asked about the Hotel Palestine incident. Pentagon spokesman Victoria Clarke noted the obvious: "war is a dangerous business and you're not safe when you're in a war zone."

But that was not enough for the journalists. They held a candlelight vigil at the Palestine ("Stop friendly fire, stop friendly fire," they chanted). At the Wednesday Centcom press briefing one of them, indignation bulging from his safari jacket pockets, asked if the Palestine hotel was now going to be given "the same status as a heritage site or a mosque."

And, of course, they demanded an investigation. Some suggested this be carried out by something called the International Federation of Journalists. But that organization's objectivity might be questionable since it was already screaming about "Media victims of the war in Iraq."

On CNN, anchor Judy Woodruff, normally one of the more circumspect and careful of the talking heads, questioned "the propriety of using a tank round" to deal with whatever threat may or may not have emanated from the Palestine. CNN's Christiane Amanpour wondered whether a tank shell was a "proportionate response" to sniper fire.

Proportionate response? Put yourself in a tank on the streets of Baghdad. You are in a fight and your enemy is in various buildings around you. He has used civilians as human shields. He has hidden in mosques, schools and hospitals. He has a proclivity for shedding his uniform for civilian clothes. Thus far in this war, the most effective weapons used against you have been shoulder-fired antitank missiles. Maybe you have been told that the Palestine Hotel is "off limits," maybe not. In the haze and confusion of battle you can hear rounds plinking off your turret. Is it just some sniping, or is somebody trying to "button down" your tank so his comrades can get off a shot with a Kornet missile or an armor piercing RPG. Who are those guys on the roof or the balconies of that building a couple hundred yards away? They're hunched over something. Is it a missile launcher - or a video camera?

Maybe the journalists in the Palestine got to believing their own stuff. Maybe they thought this war was pretty much watching the sky light up and the palm trees shake and feeling the concussions of the bombs. Marcy McGinnis, CBS senior vice president for news coverage, told The Wall Street Journal, "We thought there would be less danger to our reporters. We heard about these bombs that were not going to hit civilian targets."

Well, we've all heard about those bombs. But war correspondents should at least know that, as Barbara Tuchman wrote in The Guns of August, "human beings, like plans, prove fallible in the presence of those ingredients that are missing in maneuvers - danger, death, and live ammunition." War is a carnival of errors by soldiers and civilians.

Let me stipulate that although I have covered military affairs for many years, I have never supped at the bloody cup of Mars. I never served in the military (except for a college ROTC stint) and I have never covered combat up close. I have participated in firing exercises in the turret of an Abrams tank. I served as a loader on a Paladin (175 mm mobile artillery) in a live firing exercise. But I only heard distant machinegun fire at night in El Salvador, and had a couple bullets ricochet uncomfortably close to me near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Winston Churchill once said, "Nothing is more exhilarating than to be shot at without result." The closest I came to that was being fired at as I sat in the front seat of a careening police car one hot night in Los Angeles.

That said, I cannot conceive of being in a combat zone and not fully expecting that I might be killed or wounded at any time. It goes with the territory. It is the price journalists pay to be among the chosen few who get to cover the ultimate spectator sport.

What happened at the Palestine Hotel and at the Al-Jazeera office nearby was a terrible thing. Three human beings lost their lives in the most violent way. But you can't cover combat from a press box. There is no press box. "C'est la guerre" may seem dismissive, but it is the plain truth.

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