Some Notes on Being a War Correspondent
April 2003

by Joseph L. Galloway

Joe Galloway is the Military Affairs Editor for Knight Ridder Newspapers. He has covered wars since Vietnam in 1965. He wrote “We Were Soldiers Once and Young” with General Hal Moore, which was made into the movie “We Were Soldiers.”

He is the only civilian to ever be awarded the Bronze Star for Valor by the Army during the Vietnam War for his action in the Battle of The Ia Drang.

He wrote this memo for the reporters scheduled to embedded with US Troops in Iraq.

(read his memoirs of the Vietnam War)

There are old war correspondents and bold war correspondents but no old, bold war correspondents…

The things to carry:
-- A 3 month supply of any prescription meds you require. Ask your doc for a prescription for a couple of doses of a good strong antibiotic that you tolerate well; ditto a bottle of a good antibiotic eyedrops. A small pack of first aid stuff comes in handy. Immodium AD, by all means. A bottle of 60 or 70 strength sunblock lotion. Use it liberally in the field.

-- A good flashlight (with red & blue lens covers for night light discipline) and supply of batteries.

-- A small portable shortwave radio to catch BBC and VOA and find out what the world is learning about what is going on. If you are travelling with the Army you will hear how the Marines are winning the war.

-- Take a camera and film. You might snap the Pulitzer Prize winner of the war.

-- Several sizes of ziplock bags, to protect your camera and lenses. Couple of larger plastic bags to wrap your satphone and laptop. Where you are going the sand is ever-present and ever invasive. It will destroy your equipment, given a chance

-- A big big neckerchief that can serve as a sand filter for your mouth as you roar thru the wadis in a tank column, and as additional sun protection for your neck. The brims on kevlar helmets are very narrow.

-- Two canteens full of water. Both should have canteen cups included. Bring some fuel bars so you can boil up a canteen cup of instant coffee. Nothing so good on a cold desert morning.

-- A bottle of Louisiana hot sauce. MREs taste like crap, generally speaking, and the included Tabasco Sauce doesn’t help all that much.

-- A Swiss Army knife to open MREs and fix things.

-- A simple compass so you will know which way to walk if you get left behind.

-- A good set of earplugs. (Do not stand near M1A2 Abrams tanks, or 155mm howitzers, preparing to fire. You may hurt yourself jumping into the air when they go off.)

-- A poncho and poncho liner for when you have to sleep on the ground or walk in the rain.

-- A green fleece jacket and a pair of warm gloves. The desert gets real cold at night; below freezing this time of year. Then it gets back to 95F or 110F by noon. Layering is the idea.

-- A good comfortable broken in pair of goretex lined hiking boots, and nice thick boot socks. Foot Powder! Take care of your feet etc etc etc.

-- A spare pair of glasses, if you wear them. The others WILL break.

-- At least TWO good books to read. Much of war reporting involves waiting… waiting... waiting. Hours and days of waiting; seconds of sheer terror. Since you are going to be hanging with the military take along stuff they have read. It will impress them and give you something to talk about while you are waiting around. Shaara’s Killer Angels. Fehrenbach’s This Kind of War. Caputo’s A Rumor of War. Galloway’s We Were Soldiers Once…and Young.

We are talking basic fieldcraft here, folks. Add or subtract as needed. If you can’t live without something, you best bring it along. These items are, of course, in addition to your SatPhone & batteries for same, and laptop if you haul one. Sometimes in the field you may have an opportunity to charge these items if the commander is kind enough to allow you plug into his generator.

To avoid getting yourself killed:
-- Strive to look as much like a private of whatever service you are travelling with. You do NOT want to stand out like a sore thumb. BLEND IN! If you look different you may thus appear important to someone peering through a sniper scope. If he is low on ammo or short on time he will definitely shoot you first. Those on the recent media exercise who declared that they had to look different, and donned brightly colored shirts and vests or stripped the camo cover off their kevlar helmet and substituted white tape with a large PRESS emblazoned thereon, are idiots. It is not worth dying to make a statement about your civilian status.

-- If things start happening suddenly and violently---incoming mortars or AK47 rifle fire or a chemical warfare alert---and you don’t know what to do….watch a sergeant and do what he does and what he tells you to do. Failing that, get down and stay down until the picture becomes clearer. If someone, anyone, tells you to move out or run or dig a hole….do so with vigor.

-- Privacy in a combat zone is almost non-existent and is not to be desired. Do not wander off by yourself to commune with nature on a clear desert night. As soon as you are over the hill your unit will crank up and pull out. Murphys Law of combat operations.

-- Be alert and aware at all times. Don’t sit down on the ground or flop down on a tank deck or lay down anywhere without first taking a very good look for bugs, critters, snakes, scorpions and the like. You will have a very painful war if you are nursing a scorpion bite on your butt. Unless you are in base camp do not remove your boots, even to sleep. In the field you will have to jump up and haul ass quickly and that is hard to do if you are feeling around for your boots and getting them tied. Even in base camp, shake out your boots before putting your feet into them. Scorpions love the interiors. Do not lay down and go to sleep in close proximity to any military vehicle; in it or on it or a good distance away are all fine. Otherwise it will leave suddenly and run over you. Happens to soldiers all the time.

-- Be careful what opportunities you accept. Once you are accepted in any unit you will get offers to “come on along with us.” Find out all the info you can about their mission and decide accordingly. A small unit foot patrol on a 15-mile night mission including a river crossing? Accept only those things you are physically capable of doing and ask yourself if you will get a story that is worth the risk. Do not touch or move anything strange on the battlefield. It will likely blow up in your face.

-- Avoid animals. Period. Cute dogs and other critters bite. Then you go to the rear to get your rabies shots.

-- Stop drinking water around 5 p.m. each day. Otherwise you will wake up at 2 a.m. with an urgent call of nature. In camp the P-Tube or latrine will be at least 300 yards away, or more, and an obstacle course of tent ropes must be negotiated in the dark. In the field you are obliged to step away from the group to handle the call, and are at high risk of being shot by a sentry upon your return. It ain’t worth it. Go to bed with a dry mouth and wake up alive the next morning.

Common Sense:
-- Don’t be a whiner and complainer. Take the good and bad cheerfully. Don’t huddle in shared misery with other reporters. You are there to cover soldiers. Spend your waking hours with them, listening to them. Find out where they come from back home. Put that in your stories. You may be surprised to find your average Infantry captain, while from a totally different culture, is often intelligent and a good companion. They are interested in how you do your job, where your reports will be published, and the like. Be friendly.

-- To the average enlisted soldier you are, initially, an item of curiosity. In a day or two you become, in his eyes, “our goddam reporter.” Spoken with pride, not ridicule. You are the only civilian he will see in the field, in a combat zone. You are a sign to him that someone outside the big green machine cares how he lives and how he dies. Do care. At the same time be aware that the GI, the grunt, has a perverse and often black sense of humor. He will pull your chain, given the opportunity. Ask a dumb question and his answer may be highly imaginative. I recall a high-strung TV network reporter who asked fearfully about the protection afforded by the armor on a Bradley fighting vehicle in which he was riding. He was soon convinced that an AK-47 rifle round would pass thru that armor, kill two or three folks inside, and pass on through the other side. It was a long, terrifying ride for said reporter, and a large source of amusement to the soldiers.

-- There is no way I can prepare someone who has never witnessed combat for the shock of the first sight of a badly wounded soldier, screaming in pain, begging for his mother. Or the sight of the face of a young soldier in death….a soldier of either side. You will learn to process the images and move on and do your job. But what you see in battle will never leave you.

-- In combat you may find that those around you may need a helping hand. Do not shy away from an opportunity to act first as a concerned human being and then later as a reporter. Help the wounded, if called to do so. Carry water or ammo or the dead if it seems needed. None of that violates either the Geneva Convention or your objectivity as a journalist.

© Joe Galloway

Vietnam 1965-66, 1971, 1973, 1975
Sri Lanka student revolution 1971
India-Pakistan War 1971
East Timor 1976
Desert Shield/Desert Storm 1990-91
Haiti Incursion


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