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Dangerous Lives: War and the Men and Women Who Report It

by Anthony Feinstein

On the one side, various hells on earth: Rwanda, Bosnia, Sierra Leone, the Sudan, Mozambique, The Ivory Coast, Somalia, Chechnya, Colombia. On the other side, the established democracies: health, wealth, individual rights, social order, even the pursuit of happiness. There are only a few people who are dauntless enough – or morally outraged or thrill-addicted enough – to travel back and forth between these two worlds.

Dr. Anthony Feinstein has written a book about one of those groups of people. In Dangerous Lives, Feinstein, a Toronto-based psychiatrist and expert on post-traumatic stress disorder, explores the psychological cost of combat journalism. What proportion of war correspondents suffer from the disorder? What kind of personalities are attracted to such a profession, what sorts of experiences do they endure, and how do they and their loved ones cope?

Written in an unblinking, occasionally textbook-like style, with an undertow of empathy – the book’s tone resembles the unhurried probes of a psychiatrist in session with a patient – Dangerous Lives begins by outlining just how many psychological bullets a war correspondent must dodge. On top of the expected perils, reporters can be driven to the brink by uncaring, penny-pinching employers (who scrimp on benefits for the wounded); by constant, fight-or-flight exhaustion; by substance abuse; and, for those few who have spouses, by the return to civilian life (the chitchat of family and friends strikes many a decompressing journalist as inane). Of death itself, we learn that dealing with survivors is more soul-destroying than encountering the slain (because the living are so needy).

For all this, however, Feinstein’s case studies point in a surprising direction: it turns out that the majority of combat journalists do not have stress disorders. He writes that “(they) enjoy what they do, are very good at it and manage to keep the hazards from undermining their psychological health.” Nevertheless, the reader’s overriding impression is that those who report the world’s insanity are of necessity inoculated with a fraction of madness themselves – a bit of craziness seems like a job requirement.

Feinstein’s final and extremely vivid chapter recounts his own experience of the morning of Sept. 11, when he was on duty in a psychiatric ward. A longtime inmate shuffled up to the television, looked hard at the footage of the collaping twin towers, and then turned away. The inmate remarked, “You have to be really crazy to do a thing like that.” Feinstein’s book demonstrates that you don’t have to be crazy to be a war reporter. Some might add – “but it helps.”