In This Article War Correspondents

  • Introduction
  • Between the Wars
  • The Korean War
  • Post–Cold War Conflicts

Military History War Correspondents
by
Steven Casey
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 August 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0088

Introduction

War correspondents are a society’s window onto the battlefield. They brave the dangers at or near the front in an attempt to provide stories on who is winning, and why; on the character, strengths, and weaknesses of the main generals; and on the conditions faced by the opposing forces, their appearance, weapons, diets, and morale. The literature on war correspondents can be broadly divided into four categories. First, there are those works that focus on reporters’ output. These are often anthologies containing some of the best, or most influential, writing by one or more big names. Then there are the books that explore war correspondents’ adventures at the front. These tend to be memoir accounts by the reporters themselves, or fast-paced narratives by friendly biographers. The third set of works seeks to uncover the correspondents’ motives and modes of operations. Unlike the many soldiers who have been drafted, reporters have often had a choice: to remain in their safe hometown jobs or to head out to dangerous battle zones. Have they gone to the front simply because of the attractions of fame and fortune, or have other factors been at work: the pull of duty, the fear of being considered a shirker, the lure of comradeship? Moreover, while biographers tend to emphasize the individualistic nature of risk-seeking reporters, this third strand of writing places them in a broader context. For one thing, it looks at the relationships they forged with a military hierarchy that invariably holds a much more restrictive attitude to the whole concept of publicity. For another, it reveals the profession’s own pressures, from the acceptable norms that govern how a story is reported at a particular moment in time to the demands of editors and publishers who pay the wages. Fourth and finally come the works that assess the impact of war reporting. On the one hand, overly restrictive military censorship can cover up specific mistakes, conceal general incompetence, and, as a result, prevent a belligerent from making the necessary changes to prosecute the war more effectively. This has invariably been the journalists’ refrain. On the other hand, overly revealing news stories might give away key military secrets; they might also undermine a society’s will to fight. This is the gist of an influential strand of writing about the Vietnam War: that it was lost not on the battlefield, but on the home front. Small wonder that Vietnam looms large in the literature, as, for some, a cautionary tale of what happens when war correspondents are given too much freedom.

General Overviews

War correspondence has not remained static. The nature of journalism has evolved over time, especially with the development of new technologies, from radio and television to the Internet. The way that war reporters interact with the military at the front has changed as well. Military censors have always been reluctant to allow war correspondents too much leeway to write what they actually see, worried about divulging secrets to the enemy or undermining support for the war back home—hence the famous notion that truth is war’s first casualty. But the military’s ability and willingness to impose total control has waxed and waned from war to war, according to factors such as expertise or political will. Finally, regime type has also exerted a major influence over war reporting. In authoritarian or totalitarian regimes, censorship has invariably been rigid, massively constraining what even the most talented war correspondents can actually get into print. By contrast, in democracies that pride themselves on a free press, such control has always been problematic. With democratic-based reporters therefore having more scope to write revealing stories, their experiences and dispatches have dominated the literature, although some writers have sought to explore whether issues like national culture or gender have also mattered.

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