Covering War: Why Journalists Accept the Risk
It was a U.S. senator from California named Hiram Johnson who may have said it best back in 1929: “The first casualty when war comes is truth.”
Was Johnson the first person to utter those words? Probably not.
But those eight words are about as true as any I have ever heard when it comes to war.
There are many reasons why a small cadre of the human race makes the decision to go unarmed onto the battlefield. Some do it for personal glory. Some do it to test themselves or to prove something to themselves.
But I believe most do it because they have an abiding belief that if they are not there in the heat of battle to witness what is going on, then the truth will never be known and the truth should never be a casualty when people are dying.
On Sunday we learned that the first journalist died covering the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
He was American journalist and documentary filmmaker Brent Renaud, 51, and he was shot by Russian soldiers manning a checkpoint in the city of Irpin, a suburb of Kyiv.
Renaud and Juan Arredondo, another journalist, were attempting to cross a bridge to film fleeing refugees when they were attacked by Russian forces at a checkpoint.
“We got into a car—somebody offered to take us to the other bridge, and we crossed the checkpoint and they [started] shooting at us,” Arredondo said. “So the driver turned around, and they kept shooting.”
Arredondo, who was wounded, said he saw Renaud get shot in the neck.
What happened to Renaud and Arredondo is an example of what can happen during any conflict.
Checkpoints, which are often manned by nervous soldiers with itchy trigger fingers, are especially chancy places.
Of course, there is also always the chance that the soldiers manning that checkpoint were convinced that journalists covering the war from the other side were the enemy—even if they were unarmed—and therefore, fair game.
It seems likely, given the eyewitness accounts, that Renaud and Arredondo were perceived that way. We may never know.
What we do know, however, is that when men and women decide to work as war correspondents, they are putting their lives at tremendous risk.
In my own case, the first wars I covered were in Vietnam and Cambodia. I learned very early on during those conflicts that wars are never predictable—nor are the people fighting them.
In fact, war is nothing more than marginally controlled chaos. Wars are the epitome of Murphy’s Law that says: “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.”
That’s how I always approached covering war—whether they were big ones such as Vietnam or Afghanistan, or smaller ones such as the ones I covered in El Salvador, Guatemala, or Nicaragua.
That was rule number one for me.
The second rule I followed was a more deeply personal one. In fact, it was a tiny voice in my head that told me “Don’t go down that road,” or “Stay where you are,” or some other tacit command that sprang from somewhere within my consciousness.
I have no idea if that voice was always right, but I never failed to heed it and I survived some pretty dicey situations.
I was sad to hear of Renaud’s death. I did not know this man, but as with all of those who choose to cover war, I have the deepest respect and admiration for him.
He was trying to tell the stories of those caught in the ferocious storm of war—the innocent non-combatants fleeing the carnage as refugees.
Often, as war reporters, we find ourselves gravitating away from the devastation and cruelty of combat to stories about how the war is impacting the innocent and the blameless—especially children.
Sadly, as we have seen with the death of Renaud, the war often follows us when we do.
It is a severe reminder that in war there are no safe havens.
But it should also remind us to be thankful to those men and women who risk their lives to report the truth.
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