In the mass media, the primacy of ever more intimate perspectives on violent confrontation, which has long been a staple of journalistic profit and practice, has undergone a crucial transformation over the last century. From an overt eagerness to take an active role in the experience of war to a coy, self-promoting emphasis on the risks of the trade, the representation of violent subjects has consistently been filtered through reportorial, yet tremendous change has befallen the role of professional interlocutors in the serving up the experience of war and violent conflict for domestic consumption. The triumph of a technologised perspective has eclipsed journalistic agency, collapsing the distinction between the pen and the sword in a way that reporters, for all their efforts to command the prestige of each, could never achieve. The focus on the fight, narrowed to the point of impact, strips away orienting discourses to produce a dehumanised perspective that is, if no more or less violent in its own right, unquestioning in its pursuit of the vivid sensation violence provides.
In this essay, I hope to illuminate some of the relationships between pen and sword that have evolved from the time of my own historical period of specialisation, the Cuban-Spanish-American and Philippine-American wars, to the unfortunate juncture at which we find ourselves a century later. I will begin, however, in the middle, for it is in my own experience of looking for a fight, finding and reporting on it, and then, later, as a historian, reflecting upon the phenomenon in historical comparison with previous correspondents, that I arrived at the conclusions presented here.
My work as a “front-line” correspondent took place in environments largely lacking front lines or sophisticated machinery. From skulking about in back alleys to avoid Duvalier’s secret police in Haiti, I had graduated to the “low intensity conflict” of the Philippines. Sporadic and isolated though such violence might be, it was nonetheless my mission to seek it out and capitalise upon it. I felt long past appreciating the news value of being in the line of fire, however, I was soon speeding madly from the scene of my first at-risk gunplay, on February 7, 1986, the day of the Marcos-Aquino election, prelude to the People Power revolution later that month. That violence begets violence, incidental and otherwise, was being made all too clear: as I listened to the thumps representing the likely ends of roadside dogs and cats unfortunate enough to be in the way of the speeding getaway car driven by my Filipino oppositionist hosts, I noted that my ostensibly peaceful guides were vigorously contemplating an armed response. There was news value in the scene, but I was sickened by their rapid descent into revenge mode. My disappointment was not entirely based on aversion to the addictive and infectious power of violence, however: in showing that they, too, were capable of bloodshed, my once-sympathetic guides were spoiling a clean story line. In the moment, knowing my market, I was, it must be admitted, every bit as inclined to value a sharp image over a nuanced portrait as the narrowly focused machine I at other times decry. My article presented the story in diverse detail, but the market logic of its genesis had directed it toward the singular, violent departure point on which I did, indeed, focus when, asked that morning where I wanted to go, I had responded, “Wherever there’s going to be fighting.”
In addition to market considerations holding violence as the highest news value, though, my approach had roots in the aspiring war correspondent’s classic infatuation with getting a piece of the action. Just as soldiers need a war to amass the medals and experience necessary for rapid advancement, journalists can extract from exposure to the most arresting stories professional opportunity and, often, the thrill of a lifetime. The cultural capital offered by a role in a good fight is a currency subjected to official devaluation over the years, but in the marketplace of personal identity, war stories retain worth. My students appear to like hearing them; I must admit that I can revel in telling one. Like an accounting of scars and scares past, it celebrates triumph over threats large and small. Even a well-established reputation is no bar to glory-seeking on the basis of proximity to the fight. Top New York Times reporter R.W. Apple’s tale of a bullet passing through the loose folds of his trousers was undermined by the absence of evidence (other reporters could not believe he would throw out so treasured a souvenir), but it only serves to emphasise all the more the delicious appeal to reporters of a physical link to the fighting.
Such anecdotes, and the ascendant prestige accorded photojournalists, who must place themselves closer to the action than those who only have to write about it, serve to emphasise the emergence of an informal pecking order based on proximity to peril. This emphasis on risk, with its evocation of potential sacrifice, represents a historical change. Where today facing danger is a featured facet of journalistic practice, a century ago the emphasis was on dishing it out. For example, I found in the Manuscript Division of the U.S. Library of Congress a letter from John Barrett, the first journalist to suggest military action in the Philippines to a national American audience, in which he wrote to his mother of having derived “great pleasure in firing five or six shots at the enemy.” Despite his former rank as consul to Siam and the position of power and distinction he enjoyed as correspondent for both the prestigious North American Review and the widely-read network of newspapers headed by William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal, Barrett sought parity with simple soldiers whose institutional base more readily connoted glory. "[I] may not be an enlisted soldier but in my way as a correspondent of the greatest daily newspapers of the world—i.e., the most extensively read—bear a responsibility quite equal to a lesser officer unto those who are on the rank.” he wrote to his mother on June 26, 1898, adding, “I would not send any 'fake' account of the battle even if ordered to do so by the editor himself and if I do not send a 'fake' story I must be at the front where I can see what is actually done."
Barrett’s location of the “actual” war at the front lines, where hot lead and blood were imagined to flow freely, adhered to a prevailing press perspective valorizing immersion in the fight. As the nineteenth century drew to a close, widespread acceptance was accorded to the notion of the superiority of “hard-won” knowledge, gained through exposure to combat (or perhaps, as in the case of a rival interlocutor of Philippine affairs, Dean Worcester, to alternative threats such head-hunters). In part a reflection of the rough-edged Social Darwinism holding up such survivors as the “fittest” and in part a simple testament to the universal power of warrior myths, battle-certified claims to a higher degree of both patriotism and veracity were an effective rhetorical trump card against the reasoned, impassioned pleas for caution and humanity emerging from the mostly older men of letters leading the anti-imperialist movement. Other reporters of the age also won fame for their activist roles. One of Hearst’s other minions, Karl Decker, engineered an 1897 jailbreak in Cuba that brought to a nationwide audience New York Journal’s tale of the “Cuban girl martyr,” Evangelina Cosio y Cisneros. Other reporters fought alongside the Cuban rebels, sweetening the romantic notion of siding with the underdog—which contributed mightily to the popularity of the “yellow” press’ sensational accounts of war.
While the insertion of such blatant reportorial machismo into war reporting has diminished with time and the supposed rise of objectivity as a guiding standard, the interest of media audiences in intimate details of the experience of war has not diminished, and the technologies available to answer such demands have proliferated. From the “living room war” so roundly decried by those who mistakenly saw the seeds of defeat in enhanced public access to the details of war in Vietnam, we have “advanced” to a perspective on warfare that is funneled through the dispassionate gaze of the weapons themselves. The video game metaphor for war, popularised during and since the first Persian Gulf War, gave rise to a missile’s-eye-view that rendered apparently superfluous the role of the reporter. Government restrictions on press access to war zones, instituted in Grenada in 1983 and carried to new lengths in Iraq in 1991, further contributed to the marginalisation of the reportorial agency. It did not help that reporters did so poor and tardy a job of exposing as false the notions of technological infallibility promoted by officialdom. Their failure to question the Big Lie of reported Patriot missile accuracy in striking down Iraqi Scuds only served to support the notion that machines were more reliable than men. Meanwhile, the celebrity of “Scud Stud” Arthur Kent was largely based on his positioning before a pyrotechnic backdrop of flares, tracers, and the occasional missile, which helped keep alive the impression that a reporter’s importance is contingent upon close physical connection with the scene of the fight.
Today, we see the new face of war through the lens of the Predator, an unmanned drone that can both gather and disseminate information and issue a deadly strike. The bomber-camera combo dissolves the dated dichotomy constructed as pen vs. sword. All too frequently a false construction in the first place, the “which is mightier?” question nonetheless offered value in its oppositional frame. Even if reporters understood the supremacy of arms, and tied their own identities to their use in diverse and sometimes contradictory fashion, their ability to wield words had a self-interested way of conveying the hazards of war, and thus at least some of its potential human consequences.
Akin to the dashboard-cam that has pervaded consciousness in the age of “Cops” and other all-car-chase-all-the-time forms of television, the machine vision that orders and produces audience perceptions of distant fighting has sidelined the reportorial perspective, putting the viewer in the imaginary cockpit. Has the stripping away of reportorial mediation produced any more or less humane or accurate an impression? Despite the often pugnacious and self-glorifying approach of reporters seeking to validate their vitality and influence, the removal of journalistic agency has left the field open for manipulation by the controllers of the bomber-camera combo, and thus has impoverished public understanding of the deadly spiral violence inspires.
There is historical precedent, or at least parallel, for this, and it is not encouraging. Public enthusiasm for taking the Philippines was stirred in 1898 by the ease with which the technologically superior new American gunboats destroyed the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay. Newspapers filled page after page with illustrations and descriptions of naval ordnance, inspiring a fusion of technophilia and war fever that helped prepare the way for the United States’ rapid conversion from an anti-imperialist polity into an expanding power with global ambitions and concomitant responsibilities and exposures. What began as an ostensibly diversionary military manoeuver designed to keep Spanish ships from playing a highly unlikely role in reinforcing the defense of Cuba—a preemptive strike, to use a currently popular term—grew, through an initial affinity for the new fighting machines, into an engagement that ended up portending a transoceanic American empire and altered national destinies to go with it. Not long after, bogged down in a grisly and unexpectedly lengthy land war against Filipino independence-seekers, Americans had reason to rethink their assumptions about the ease with which wars could be prosecuted. The Philippine-American war has been largely erased from American history, along with the accounts of the war correspondents who covered it. But the legacy of globalised imperial violence it initiated lives on, with the next installment coming soon. Check your local listings.