I recently read an extremely pretentious guide to combat journalism filled with nonsensical advice coming from a guy who apparently has never really been in the shit. After breathing a deep sigh and forcing myself not to reach through my computer screen and choke the writer out, I decided I would type up my own guide to combat journalism. Maybe this will benefit others who travel overseas to report on conflicts, or those whose job takes them to some dangerous parts of the world.
There are some great combat journalists out there—guys like Al Venter—who have been at it for decades. I would never presume to tell these folks how to do their job, but there are many young journalist types out there who seem completely lost in the sauce. The young social justice warrior who rolls over to the Middle East to work as a journalist, and whose only flaw is that they just care too much, is a cliche at this point. It is my hope that this guide gives some advice that journalism school teachers are afraid to say out loud, but may prove critical not just to reporting, but to making it back home alive.
While helping some of the SOFREP writers plan an upcoming “deployment,” I told them that it is important to establish contacts and a basic game plan before leaving. Otherwise, you may get to the area of operations and end up sitting in a motel room watching porn on Showtime for five days straight. Initially, you may want to cast a wide net. Some contacts will come through for you on the ground and others will be a bust. Never head out with only one option. You need a plan B and C, not to mention a few contingency plans in case you have to get out of Dodge with the quickness. If one contact falls through and this prevents you from covering the conflict, then it is because of your own piss-poor planning.
So where do you begin to develop some sources and contacts on the ground? These days it is stupid easy to cast your wide net and begin talking to people using social media. I’ve been fortunate to have previous experience in the Middle East from my time in the Army, which gives me a head start, but that isn’t enough. Everyone is on social media these days, the good guys and bad guys in any war. There are many different techniques to begin developing sources, and some journalists use lots of chicanery.
I have a different, but effective, technique: I just tell people straight up what I’m looking for. Some folks will not talk to you, and they have their reasons. Others will be more than happy to help out. Eventually, you’ll find the right people who can open some doors for you. You don’t have to wait for an upcoming trip to develop contacts, either. If there is a region you are interested in, start now.
By talking to various contacts, and trolling open-source media sources, you will begin to vector in on what is interesting and previously unreported. Now you want to develop a general game plan and some basic story ideas. I use loose terms like “general” and “basic” intentionally, because shit changes quickly in a war zone, so be prepared for that. You want a plan and some good points of contact, but you also want enough flexibility built into that plan so that you can shift to the left or right as needed.
There are some great trainers out there, but there is also a lot of boondoggle training going on, especially for journalists. I see some “combat journalism” courses that teach a lot of crap with huge price tags attached. Before heading into a combat zone, the average Joe can certainly benefit from some training—basic combat first-responder stuff at a minimum. This involves things like basic first aid and some entry-level trauma medicine such as how to treat a gunshot wound or an amputated limb. Rather than spend $2,000 to take a course on this, I think most journalists would be better served by seeking out a former Ranger or Special Forces medic (both of which are graduates of the Special Operations Combat Medics School) and throwing him some beer money for a day of medical training.
I don’t think that reporters really need tactical training, perhaps not any further than knowing how to utilize cover and concealment to avoid getting themselves shot. However, although journalists don’t need to practice the practical application of infantry tactics, learning about them may increase the quality of their reporting. Most veterans roll their eyes at combat reporting because the writer is often devoid of any military knowledge. One of the fastest ways to discredit yourself is to make simple mistakes like writing that the AK-47 fires 5.56mm bullets. If you can’t get the small stuff right, no one is going to trust you to report on the big picture.
Basic military knowledge is therefore important when covering conflicts. Researching the history of the region you are going to and getting up to speed on the tactics and weapons employed in that conflict should be a consideration as a part of your planning and training prior to departure.
Please, for your own sake, don’t roll overseas with a bunch of tacticool gear. It is unnecessary and you are just painting a bullseye on the back of your head. Avoid anything military-looking, including anything in a camo pattern, MIL-SPEC webbing, assault packs, and the like.
As for what to take, that varies on where in the world you are heading to. I hope I don’t need to tell you that you can leave your winter parka at home when traveling to Iraq in July. Over the years, I’ve found that I pack less and less as I learn what I need and what I don’t. A few pairs of pants, a collared shirt if you are meeting with someone important, and a bunch of those moisture-wicking T-shirts that help prevent you from stinking up a storm are a good start. Cram them all into a compression sack to save space.
I use a rucksack because you are going to war, dammit, so leave that damn roller suitcase at home. I love my Kifaru ZXR, but following my own rule against using military-looking gear, I travel with an Arc-Teryx Needle, which I’ve used for about 10 years now. It is a simple top-loading waterproof ruck that gets the job done.
For someone of my generation, I’m a little low-tech and prefer a notepad and paper. That said, I’ve also brought an encrypted tablet with a Bluetooth-linked keyboard to take sensitive notes on. You’ll appreciate this when stopped by local security during questionable border crossings. Encrypt your cell phone as well, and never turn it over willingly. If asked, just say you lost it. I prefer Nexus cell phones and tablets that you can just pop a local SIM card into. The pen and paper is still good for taking notes on the fly—you can always type them up in the tablet and destroy the handwritten notes later on.
I used a money belt many years ago in Central America, but I don’t like them much, as you’ll sweat right through it during long treks and end up with a lot of soggy 20-dollar bills. One of those lanyards that goes around your neck, hidden under your shirt, is a better option. Keep your passport and cash in a ziplock bag inside of it. Yes, I said cash. You might need those greenbacks to bargain for your freedom at some point.
Other odds and ends to bring:
- Power adapter
- Folding knife (goes in checked baggage while flying)
- Anti-diarrheal (I’ve gotten the claymore shits in Iraq and Senegal)
- Extra batteries
- Emergency contact numbers
- A photocopy of your passport kept in a different location than your actual passport
- Whatever you need to keep your cameras or other electronics in working order
For some kidnapping repellant, I would recommend a GPS device called the DeLorme. Made for hunters and outdoorsmen, the DeLorme allows you to send GPS grids and short text messages to a friend back home. When you wake up in the morning, you can send a grid and short message to your friend saying something like, “0900, leaving Erbil going to Kirkuk.” In case you going missing, at least people will have some idea where to start looking for you.
Risk mitigation is a bullshit corporate buzzword. Fortune favors the bold! If you wanted to be safe and secure, you would stay home. That said, we’re not suicidal here, right? Nor are we soldiers (anymore, in my case), so it isn’t our job to be on the front lines running and gunning. As a reporter, you want to be near the shit, not in the shit. Instead of risk mitigation, let’s just talk about common sense, okay?
If you get shot at, what should you do? Oh, I don’t know…HOW ABOUT YOU FUCKING DUCK! Make yourself a smaller target and move to cover. Sound like a good plan to you? Great, me too. If I’m embedded with troops that are being taken out by enemy air strikes, do I want to ride around in one of their armored vehicles? No. No, I don’t.
Dangerous situations abound in a war zone, and as a reporter, you are going to want to cover them. All it takes is a simple risk-to-reward calculation in your head. Is low-crawling a thousand meters under ISIS tracer fire worth it to get a photograph that no one back home is going to give a shit about in the first place? Probably not. Do I have to eat some mortar rounds on the front lines all night when I can just interview some soldiers just off the front to eat chow, instead? Sometimes there are ways to get the same story with significantly less risk. Other times, you might have to dodge some shrapnel; it just depends on the situation and how much risk you are prepared to accept in pursuit of your story.
At least think through the return on investment of your big scoop before you get kidnapped by Jihadi John while taking the bus to Aleppo.
Rapport-building is probably the most important aspect of war reporting. Acting like a douche bag and objectifying people to further your career will end with you being ostracized at best. At worst, you’ll get tossed into the body wadi. I always laugh at people who talk about the sanctity of life. You know how much a human life is worth in Iraq? One hundred bucks straight cash, baby. Don’t play fuck fuck games, especially with professional killers. You laugh, but I’ve seen foreigners do just that.
Listen, the thing about rapport-building is that you really can’t fake this shit. If you’re an asshole, people are going to see right through your little facade. A lot of journalists got into the field because they feel empathy for other people and want to tell their story. These folks will do okay as long as they don’t let their idealism get ahead of their pragmatism. Use that empathy to get inside the story you are chasing and understand the people and personalities involved, but don’t start falling in love with causes—that’s isn’t your job.
Following my advice for the planning stage will also help you out here. Knowing about the country you are in and the current political and security dynamics will show people on the ground that you take your job seriously. Knowing the history of the country you are in and being up to speed on the latest news will also go a long way and help initiate some conversations with interesting people.
When you’ve built a genuine relationship with local sources, only then can you begin asking them for help. This is where you begin trading up the chain and asking for introductions to important people who you would not normally have access to. Again, if you are just trying to use people to get to others that you deem more important, this will quickly become evident. You’ll start burning bridges faster than you can build them. Your goal isn’t to cherry-pick one or two high-level sources. Rather, you want to build a network of people who you can tap into, using multiple sources to confirm information as needed.
There is something else you need to know about making friends in other parts of the world. Factionalism and nepotism can be very real in certain countries. Of course we have the same thing in America, but overseas it is often much more in your face. In the United States we are better at hiding these things. Sometimes you will have to negotiate between cliques of friends and like-minded people, but more dangerous in my experience is getting wrapped up between two political factions who are opposed to one another.
This is difficult for you as a writer because you want as much access as possible so that you can write as complete a story as possible. There are no hard-and-fast answers to this conundrum, but understand that working with one faction will automatically discourage their opposing faction from working with you. You can go brush up on Machiavelli on your own time, but this is something you need to consider carefully when stomping through a politically loaded minefield.
Good god, you kids and your social media. I cringe when I see journalists blasting out their location on Twitter and updating their Instagram everywhere they go. Do you really want the Daeshbags and Shia militias to know where you are, where you are going, and who you are with? This is how you get kidnapped by terrorists or picked up by foreign intelligence services.
Social media is a double-edged sword because, as I said in the planning section, it can help you cultivate sources. On the other hand, you have to know how to use it, and live-Tweeting from the Iranian border isn’t the answer.
After being shunted around from a PKK safe house in the city to a guerrilla fortification in the mountains, I was driven to the Syrian border in the dead of night. I was going to be smuggled into Syria on a clandestine ratline normally used to get fighters and weapons to the YPG. As our vehicle drove down to the river, our headlights illuminated a small inflatable raft with an outboard engine churning toward the shore. Here we go again, I thought to myself.
There are a lot of ways to get around a war zone and each, of course, comes with its own share of risks. Passenger jets can get shot down by surface-to-air missiles, buses get hijacked, cars get stopped at military checkpoints, and moving on foot can involve gunfire, incoming mortars, scrambling over berm lines, and even improvised explosive devices.
The two main things you need to look at are route selection and who you are traveling with. Has there been a recent history of IEDs going off on the route you are taking? Is there a way to mitigate that by traveling at night or taking an entirely different route? Are there checkpoints along the way? Who operates them, and have others had a hard time with the guards over the last few weeks? These are the sorts of questions you need to ask your local contacts.
Next, who are you going with? If you are traveling with the YPG and driving through YPG checkpoints in Syria, than you should be good to go. But what if some of the checkpoints are run by the Syrian Army? Now you could be in for some trouble.
Personally, I don’t like using “fixers,” although some of them are quite good. If you don’t speak the local languages, you are going to need some type of fixer, regardless. If your fixer comes highly recommended and has a support network in place that helps him negotiate the checkpoints, then he may very well be worth your time. Hiring a fixer doesn’t mean you let him do your job for you, though. You use him when you need him, but otherwise you build your own contacts and have him take you to meet them. If you do hire a fixer, you need to thoroughly vet them, as the less reputable ones have a habit of selling Western journalists off to ISIS.
Read Part Two HERE
Image courtesy of Huffington Post