By James Clark
Politics & Culture Reporter
It’s 1951 and somewhere near the 38th parallel, the border between North and South Korea, lies the village of Ch’on Do Ri where a valley cuts a swathe between two mountaintops. The snow has begun to cake the forward slope where United States Marines are embedded in the labyrinthine trench system. Their breath rises in white clouds that mingle with campfire and cigarette smoke which mirror the plumes rising from the North Korean line.
The company’s 1st Sergeant crouches concealed amongst the sandbags, a 50 Caliber sniper rifle held tightly in his hands. At his side is a Private First Class (PFC), who rests safely in cover, but just beyond them there is a gap in the wall. A third man sits back, his attention riveted on the other two.
Suddenly the palpable tension reaches its peak and the PFC springs forward, revealing himself to the enemy. The burst of shots, empty and hollow, echo across the vast divide between the two entrenched forces.
After his mad dash the Marine drops back into cover, breathing heavy with exhaustion, but still in one piece. The PFC’s plan worked. Realizing that the enemy was always on the lookout for an easy kill, he volunteered to draw their fire for the 1st Sergeant, an expert marksman who would use the flash from their enemy’s rifles to pinpoint their location.
As the tension begins to lift, the scratchy etching of pencil on paper becomes more noticeable. Still crouched nearby, the third man holds a notepad onto which he’s frantically detailing the event. On his right breast pocket is his last name in capital letters; PAXTON. He is a Marine, and a combat correspondent.
* * * * * * *
Jack Paxton, the Executive Director of the United States Marine Corps Combat Correspondent Association (USMCCCA), shed some light on what one is getting into by enlisting. He joined the USMC in 1950 and served as a combat correspondent in Korea and Vietnam, retiring from the USMC as a Captain in 1969. Paxton who grew up during WWII, said he missed it by two years.
"Growing up in WWII, the American people understood the situation and really relied on the servicemen and revered them a great deal." Paxton said, "I saw that dress blue uniform and said, ‘That’s for me.’"
While interviewing Marines in Korea, he found no shortage of unique experiences. Combat correspondents are Marines who are trained as journalists and assigned to cover stories about the lives of the men and women that serve in the armed forces.
Although war reporters are typically civilians, the term combat correspondent is reserved for Marines in the public affairs division. Marines with a Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) 4341 receive training in basic military writing, broadcast journalism and photography at Defense Information School (DINFOS) Forte Meade in Maryland.
However, when Paxton arrived in Vietnam the duties of combat correspondents had shifted.
"The mission of public affairs in those days changed a bit. We ostensibly went to Vietnam to cover stories and do the same things we did in Korea, and found ourselves inundated by civilian correspondents." Paxton said, describing the move from military reporting to media escort, one of the tasks assigned to today’s combat correspondents.
"When I first got [to Vietnam], we had five hundred media reps and our mission became to help them as much as we could. We would take them into combat, and were working as escorts more than anything else." Paxton said, adding that he got to work with the civilian media and with internationally renowned reporter, Eddie Adams, in particular.
Keith Oliver, the head of DINFOS, enlisted in the Marines and served just over 30 years, working in the public affairs division before retiring as a Colonel.
Although not a part of the military, war reporters are oftentimes regarded with respect by enlisted and officer alike, a sentiment that Oliver shared. "Bullets are flying and here’s this guy with his typewriter out. He’ll get the story home, however he can." Oliver said. "You get to work with some professionals who really know their stuff. These guys are pros, they may have earrings and long hair, but they can write!"
Paxton described how the roles of combat correspondents have shifted back somewhat to what they were before Vietnam. "You see an awful lot of stories from [combat correspondents] on training the Iraqi police force." Paxton said, adding that reporting on Marines working in unusual situations is a key part of being a combat correspondent.
There seems to be a call for more coverage of the daily lives of servicemen and women, or, the hometown perspective, which is something that doesn’t appear too frequently in the civilian media, Paxton said.
Tim Heffernan, an assistant editor for Esquire magazine which featured many stories by war reporters Michael Herr and John Sack during the Vietnam War, gave his two cents on how today’s reporting compares to that of the Vietnam era.
"After reading any of the great reporters from Vietnam you begin to see that their main struggle wasn’t to cut through the official bull or work up the guts to hit the frontlines," Heffernan said. "It was to figure out how to impress upon a too credulous nation the fact that the war was going very, very badly — and very differently from how its leaders were presenting it."
There are various ways each journalist achieved his aims, Heffernan said, whether it was through sheer volume of evidence as Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, David Halberstam did, or wild license in the case of Michael Herr, who is widely known for his book, "Dispatches", or bottomless empathy in the case of John Sack.
Unlike the stories from civilian war reporters who generally report for large cities, articles from combat correspondents often find their way to the small Middle American towns from which many Marines come. These focus on this hometown perspective and often scrutinize the day to day difficulties and tasks facing servicemen and women through critical human interest pieces, something Heffernan regarded as an effective way of galvanizing social involvement.
Oliver talked about the opportunities he had as a combat correspondent to report accurately, honestly, and directly to smaller Middle American towns.
"I could talk about a Marine and his life in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, but I’m also getting out unfiltered information," Oliver said. "It puts the responsibility on the combat correspondent not abuse his power; you’ve got to be dictated by honor."
Reaching out to the friends and family of servicemen and women or those who from the same area is necessary for civic participation in the war effort and for generating awareness of what it’s costing us.
"We are definitely not a nation at war; we’re a military at war." Oliver said. "Unless you have family or friends at war, most people aren’t involved. That’s where public affairs is important, to spread the word. Not to try to persuade people, but to share what’s going on."
Isabel Macdonald from Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) felt that some viewpoints, such as those of servicemen and women who are critical of the military are often underrepresented in the media.
"What we’ve seen is that when those perspectives are critical of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan they’ve been shut out from the media." Macdonald said.
One such event was "Winter Soldier: Iraq & Afghanistan," which took place at the National Labor College in Silver Spring, Maryland. It featured testimony from U.S. veterans who served in those occupations, giving accurate accounts of what is really happening day in and day out, on the ground.
In the testimony, the rules of engagement in Iraq are addressed by veterans of the war. Clifton Hicks and Steve Casey spoke of their experiences in a "free-fire zone" where there were supposedly "no friendlies," although neither man ever saw any enemy combatants, but did witness the large-scale destruction of an apartment complex.
However, the uncensored testimonials about Iraq and Afghanistan received little recognition from the greater public.
"We saw this in the Winter Soldier Testimonials when it was ignored by the mainstream media" Macdonald said, but drew attention to the fact that although the Winter Soldier Testimonials received little attention from major news organizations, it still had a substantially larger circulation than its predecessor during the Vietnam War, likely due to direct streaming from Democracy Now!, an independent daily news program that broadcasts on 88.9 FM in Santa Cruz.
However, Heffernan feels that the military can be under-credited for its willingness to give insights on the situation at hand.
"I’ve had to deal with various branches of military in my work and have been impressed with their openness. I don’t think it’s as much of a culture as censorship as it’s being portrayed." Heffernan said, adding that oftentimes censorship occurs when the commanding officers feel that certain information may constitute a security risk.
However, there have been instances when photos, news footage or stories that depict the current wars in a negative light have been censored, such as the images of filled coffins being unloaded from aircraft returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
As an award-winning photographer who worked with Molly Bingham to create Meeting Resistance, a documentary about the Iraq insurgency that offers the rare perspective of those fighting against the occupiers in Iraq, Steve Connors aims to unearth these hidden images.
Connors served in the British army for nine years, during which time he developed an interest in photography, and so pursued a career as a photo-journalist and documentarian.
The jump from soldier to reporter has been made by many, and can be made easier for those who have worked as reporters while enlisted or commissioned.
"We’ve got several wonderful success stories out there of Marines who served, got out and now they’re magazine editors, photographers, journalists, reporters, etcetera" Oliver said.
Of those Marines who have gone on to be writers or journalists is David Denelo who wrote Blood Stripes, a story detailing the grunts view of the Iraq war. Another is Senator James Web received the Navy Cross in Vietnam as an infantry officer, wrote several books about his experiences as a Marine and has been on several trips to cover war.
There are advantages to going the military route Connors said, but warned of the risks of becoming a propagandist. "You’ll have a deep understanding of how the military works, so you’ll know what questions to ask, but it’s important to get the other [side of the story]." Connors said.
Connors contrasted the extreme differences between being embedded with U.S. or British troops and being with civilians during combat, warning that being on the receiving end of bombardment and shelling is not only terrifying, but eye opening as it offers a look at what it’s like to see war from the civilian perspective.
However, this radical change in one’s perception can come at a steep price. According to The Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent, nonprofit organization created to promote press freedom, 685 journalists have been killed between January 1, 1992 and April 4, 2008.
Oliver spoke with conviction and near tangible respect about the dangers facing civilian reporters and their willingness to seek out the truth, regardless of the costs. "Most of the media guys would have a lot more medals than Marines do," he said. "If there’s trouble in the world, they’re there."
The challenges and difficulties that one may face during military service are at times beyond comprehension. Coping with the horrors of war and retaining ones identity and ideals is undoubtedly a struggle of immense proportions.
"The important thing is to try to stay sane" Connors said. "Don’t get frustrated if your views aren’t represented by the organization that you’re a part of" Connors said, adding that you need to remember why you’re there.
Although war reporters are typically civilians, the term combat correspondent is reserved for Marines in the public affairs division. Marines with a Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) 4341 receive training in basic military writing, broadcast journalism and photography at Forte Meade in Maryland.
Terris Patterson, a UCSC Graduate student that taught Fables of Control, a class that focused on dystopic literature in relation to governmental control, served on active duty in the Navy.
A Canadian immigrant, Patterson served in the Navy as an electrical engineer as a way to pay for college. He served for eight years on active duty from 1995 to 2003 and two years in the reserves from 2003 to 2005. During that time he took part in the NATO missions Allied Force and Noble Anvil in Kosovo, and was involved in operation Iraqi Freedom while stationed in the Persian Gulf.
During this time he was involved in situations he never thought he’d be in.
"I wound up in places I never should’ve been, doing jobs I was never trained to do and which were, often, morally at odds with what I joined to do." Patterson said.
"I never wanted to shoot missiles or blow shit up,