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Cautionary tales for James Foley and war correspondents everywhere

thommason column sig

By
August 26, 2014 |

WASHINGTON — Being a war correspondent is glamorous and exciting, high up on the list of any aspiring young journalist. But it is also extremely dangerous under any circumstance but especially when those practicing it are pretty much on their own without the proper support or guidance.

Photojournalist James Foley fit into that category and tragically paid the highest of prices, leaving us all worse off because of it. There is little heroism in that, just sadness and outrage at the forces of evil who took his young life. One can only hope his death might serve as a caution to those who would rush off in the future with reckless abandon and a misguided notion that Valhalla awaits if it goes wrong.

Over the years that I sent a number of young men and women into war zones, I did so with this admonition.

“Keep your head down and your powder dry. We consider what you are doing to advance the knowledge of our readers important, but not enough to end your life in the process. Don’t take foolish chances.”

Fortunately, my charges survived the experience and the dread I felt went away with their safe return. I would like to think my advice was the reason but that would be presumptuous. I just got lucky.

Earl Richert, my predecessor and mentor at Scripps Howard, told me the most difficult job he ever faced was telling the family, friends and loved ones of the death of young Henry Taylor, the son of Ambassador Henry Taylor, while covering the uprisings in the Congo. The presidential plane, the Columbine, was sent to retrieve the body. As a direct result of that, a few years later a story by cartoonist Gene Basset about being ambushed with a patrol in Vietnam brought an instant order from Earl for his return to the home office.

It was one thing for the much honored, longtime war correspondent Jim Lucas to travel regularly with U.S. troops in action in ‘Nam, but quite another for an untrained Washington-based political cartoonist with a family to take that risk. Who can argue with that?

Earl’s, and before him, Walker Stone’s sensitivity to what can go wrong stemmed largely, I believe, from the fact that nine of the correspondents killed in World War II were from Scripps Howard organizations. That included the most famous of all war correspondents, Ernie Pyle, brought down by a sniper on a small island off Okinawa and Raymond Clapper, a renowned political analyst.

Foley’s situation and the result that horrified us all came about while covering the Syrian civil war with only minimal back-up. For whatever reason. His parents say he was driven to be there. When captured and held by Islamic State forces, he became an object of propaganda and manipulation by the most ruthless of all the world’s terrorist brands.

During his captivity, there was a rejected demand for ransom by the U.S. government and finally an abortive rescue attempt this summer. Could all of this been avoided?

Probably, if he had the proper advice, and was warned emphatically that if he got into trouble he would be on his own. Maybe he did receive such counseling, but unsurprisingly it didn’t deter him. Short of being denied entry to the war zone by authorities one wonders what could have stopped him.

The Middle East is the most dangerous area on the planet for Americans generally, but particularly for those assigned there as journalists. Even the indigenous variety is extremely vulnerable. It is one thing to travel with troops around you and quite another to be out there by yourself covering fanatics of all stripe. In Syria there are only the latter.

Having said all this, I must admit there is a compulsion to be in front of the firefight that is shared by even those who have the utmost backing. They all seem struck by the same disease that constantly forces them to put their heads in the mouth of a lion. Anything else is second rate.

The Pulitzer-winning Jim Lucas murmured bitterly to me while he was dying that his wish was to have died on the battlefield. He had survived three major wars and a half-dozen skirmishes and was close by legendary photographer Robert Cappa when he was killed.

Are they brave? Certainly . . .  and foolish, too. God bless them.

Dan Thomasson is an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune and a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers. Readers may send him email at: thomassondan@aol.com.

Dan K. Thomasson

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