Under Fire: Journalists in Combat


The harrowing documentary “Under Fire: Journalists in Combat” gives a bitter but edifying taste of the increasingly dangerous world of conflict journalism.


While only two journalists were killed in World War I and sixty-three in World War II, the last twenty years have seen thousands upon thousands of journalists perishing in combat. What used to be an unusual occurrence—and big news—has now become the commonplace, garnering only shrugs.


This film, directed by Martyn Burke, is a sad reminder of how much worldwide violence has intensified from the Bosnian War to today.


Burke’s primary focus is psychological. He pays equal attention to correspondents’ feelings in the field and their painful experiences of returning home, where they too often find themselves suffering from the debilitating symptoms, including uncontrollable rage, of posttraumatic stress disorder.


As a war reporter or photographer, if you are not eventually injured yourself, it is almost guaranteed, according to this film, that you will witness some of your close associates being injured or killed, whether they are your fellow journalists, the drivers or translators you have hired, or soldiers you have been covering.


The intensity of life on the battlefield, as horrifying and heart wrenching as it can be, can also apparently make journalists feel strangely more alive, pushing them toward the “war junkie” orientation depicted in “The Hurt Locker” (2009). Normal life can come to seem somehow false.


Burke gets into the ethical dilemmas these professionals face, especially in an intense final sequence on Paul Watson, who won the Pulitzer for a photograph of a dead US soldier being dragged through Mogadishu streets.


All of these journalists are making a living and building their careers based on death and destruction: to what degree are they participants or even profiteers in war?


Burke also raises the question of whether these journalists are damaged by their work alone or are, in the first place, drawn to the work precisely because they already in one way or another damaged goods.


Some sequences utilizing animation to capture what PTSD feels like for the victim are over the top, and the score by Mark Korven sometimes works too hard to create an ominous feel.


This documentary is also limited in scope in that it only covers Western journalists, all of them white. Thankfully two women are included.


The core strength of Burke’s film lies in the fine interviews he gets from the nine journalists featured. Combine these with brutal wartime footage—a considerable amount of it involving child victims—and you have a somber, tragic documentary on a subject that begs for further exploration.




A CBC Documentary Channel release.

Directed by Martyn Burke.

Produced Martyn Burke and Anthony Feinstein.

Cinematography, Donald Purser.

Editing, Christopher McEnroe.

Original Music, Mark Korven.


Running time: 90 minutes.