Writing Humanity: on the Readings of a War Reportage


War correspondent Marie Colvin used to say that what she fears the most is not a war, but indifference; a moment when stories of terror and injustice might cease to matter. Driven by a need to bear a witness, for over four decades she covered virtually all contemporary military conflicts: Iran–Iraq War; Kosovo; the intervention in Libya; Sierra Leone; Afghanistan; Gaza. The list goes on, as impressive as it is terrifying. By driving into the epicentre of danger, Colvin hoped to give voice to the voiceless; civilians whose stories might otherwise remain untold. ‘Marie has an eye for that’ – Colvin’s friends reflected, darkly, referencing her loss of an eye in a grenade explosion at Sri Lanka. 

Marie Colvin covering the 2011 uprising in Tahrir Square, Cairo. Photograph: Ivor Prickett/Sunday Times/EPA 

Against the backdrop of a turbulent century, reporting means witnessing – integrating oneself into the situation and writing about the experience with honesty and compassion, hoping to provoke a sense of activism in the reader. Despite the usual associations we share for the noun ‘report’ as an objective, evaluating account, a summary, the genre of reportage departs from the verb ‘to report’ that specifically designates an action of relating, recounting, describing, and telling a story. It offers the reader the account on humanity in extremis. For those of you who would like to delve deeper into the topic, the Washing Post’s list of the 100 best pieces of journalism (at the same time reflecting on the likely absurdity of creating such rankings) can be a helpful source, though not a definitive one [1]. Following the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction would also provide recommendations to start on.

Studying comparative literature brings with it the excitement of reading material, yet it its purpose is to reveal unobvious links between authors, their biographies, and styles that we now call ‘intertextuality’, in the vocabulary of literary theory. It is not a simple source-hunting (or flex during literature classes) but an attempt to get ‘behind the scenes’ of the creative process and better understand an author’s motives, hopes, and anxieties. If Colvin’s war correspondence is now among the genre’s finest – lately popularised by the biography suggestively entitled In Extremis (2018) by Lindsey Hilsum, and film The Private War – she is certain not alone at the top.

The Book Cover of In Extremis 

Her exceptional journalism is only part of a larger tradition of reportage; deploying changes of style and technique to keep the reader’ attention, and the examining the ethics of witnessing war.

In taking on this genre, the most salient question is: ‘what are my motivations for reading non-fiction?’ Why, of all of the books and work available to me, do I choose those that ground me in reality, instead of taking me away from it; floating me away into the welcoming arms of fiction? Asking these basic questions of ourselves helps us define the expectations we share about non-fiction and verify whether they accord with our actual experience of reading this work.

In recalling my own encounters with the genre I think of Martha Gellhorn; an American journalist and correspondent for Collier magazine, one of the first non-fiction writers to strike me as deeply observant and very well-written. In the early 1940s, her writing re-shaped modern war correspondence. In much of her journalism Gellhorn describes scenes from conflict zones with remarkable ease and vividness. Her attention, however, quickly shifts from a comprehensive presentation of facts to a subjective description of standing at the epicentres of conflict and, most importantly, listening to people’s stories.

Portrait of Martha Gellhorn w Collection at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

Consider, for instance, this author’s reports from the RAF control station in 1943 as ‘The Bomber Boys’ prepare for taking off:

The motors were warming up, humming and heavy. Now the big black planes wheeled out and one by one rolled around the perimeter and got into position on the runway. […] Then the first plane was gone into the blackness, not seeming to move very fast, and we saw the tail-light lifting, and presently the thirteen planes that were taking off from this field floated against the sky as if the sky were water. Then they changed into distant, slow-moving stars. That was that. The chaps were off. They would be gone all this night. […] They were going to fly over France […] to bomb marshalling yards, to destroy if possible and however briefly one of the two rail connections between France and Italy. If they succeeded, the infantry in southern Italy would have an easier job for a little while.

The author paints this scene with broad strokes; detailed and novelistic descriptions intertwine with very short sentences, making the prose pulse and pause. The purpose of this cinematic technique is to replicate the intensity of what the author has witnessed and bring the reader into the scene. What would later come to be called ‘New Journalism’ [2] in the 1960s deployed techniques such as: realistic though often ‘eavesdropped’ dialogue, scene-by-scene reconstruction, recounting of the prior life and experience of ‘characters’ in the story, alternating between first- and third-person narrative. Even if the author condemns any form of violence, vivid prose poses questions about the potential fetishization of war and conflict, especially if augmented by a representation of brutal, yet still somehow glorious, war. The excerpt reads like an action novel, or the opening sequence of a blockbuster movie. [3]

Martha Gellhorn with Royal Air Force pilots, England 1943 

Even though this short excerpt does not do justice to all the variation in Gellhorn’s style, one quickly notices that her prose does not claim objectivity. Reflection on the place of the author’s subjectivity in the genre of reportage pervades Gellhorn’s entire body of work. Known for her sharp tongue, Gellhorn despised the conventions of writing from the distance, referring to it bluntly as ‘that objectivity shit’. Among her most well-known books, we may list The Trouble I’ve Seen (1936) – a set of short stories taking the reader through America during the Great Depression; A Stricken Field (1940) – a novel set against the backdrop of a war-tormented Czechoslovakia; and The Face of War (1959) – a wide collection of war journalism. The only openly autobiographical book she published was Travels with Myself and Another (1978), in which the titular ‘another’ refers to Gellhorn’s late husband husband, Ernest Hemingway.

Judging from the title, we might indeed suspect that the marriage was not a great success. The biopic film Hemingway and Gellhorn from 2012 captures some of their personal tensions, against the background of subsequent wars. After their divorce Gellhorn would tactfully avoid commenting on the writer; any interviewer bold enough to bring up the topic of their failed marriage was reportedly treated to a stern look. Given how one of Gellhorn’s first books, The Trouble I’ve Seen, was warmly received and prized for an ‘amazingly unfeminine’ quality, perhaps her stand against what she called seeing oneself ‘as a footnote to someone else’s life’ is self-explanatory.

Gellhorn was, reportedly, the only woman to see the front lines of D-Day. As the Oxford Companion to American Literature notes, ‘in a characteristic act of daring, when no publisher would send her to the front lines on D-Day during World War II, Gellhorn sneaked aboard a hospital ship and became the only woman in the field and the only journalist to set foot on shore.’ Despite that, Gellhorn held the personal conviction that ‘Courage Knows No Gender’ [4] – as Colvin called the speech she gave whilst receiving one of her many journalistic prizes. Consider its opening passage:

Do women report wars differently from men? The question used to make me bristle. It irritated me to think that I would be judged as a woman war correspondent rather than as a writer, taking the same risks and covering the same story as my male colleagues. My feelings were hardly new. ‘Feminists nark me,’ wrote Martha Gellhorn, one of the great war correspondents of the century. ‘I think they’ve done a terrible disservice to women, branding us as women’s writers. Nobody says men writers; before, we were all simply writers.’

Colvin’s vision of writing not labelled by gender might sound eminently sensible and intuitive. However, it is also decidedly idealistic and the debate on this topic has a rich history (or perhaps more aptly, HERstory) in both second- and third-wave feminism, and in cultural studies. A helpful point of reference in thinking about literature and gender would be to follow readings suggested by Poetry Foundation [5].

Writing about these two female war correspondents is not just a topic in its own right but also an opportunity to think of how we talk about the influence in literary studies. The most well-known single book about dialogues of literature is still Harold Bloom’s Anxieties of Influence. In this indeed influential (and in a way, anxious) book Bloom sees literature as a battlefield, a setting for rivalry between new authors and their predecessors. But does it always need to be this way? What if the authors let themselves be marked, changed, and challenged by the text without a constant urge to battle authority and tradition? In other words: what if inspirations go beyond the notion of rivalry and take the form of imaginative collaboration instead?

Rosamund Pike as Marie Colvin in A Private War Photo: Aviron Pictures

Every time she went to the frontline, Colvin would take only one book. This was The Face of War by Martha Gellhorn, whose reportage Colvin loved dearly; she often spoke about the lasting influence that this previous generation’s correspondent had had on her writing. It is uncertain whether they ever met, but the similarities of their turbulent biographies, styles, and  journalistic achievements alongside their life-long addictions to danger are striking; striking to the extent where the reader might speculate on how they would have related to each other as contemporaries. Of course, for the young Colvin the beloved elder correspondent was not her only inspiration. It was during her studies at Yale that Marie decided to become a journalist, and learnt from another legend of non-fiction.

Addicted to the ‘New York Times’ since her teenage years, in her second year of university Colvin signed up to lessons led by John Hersey, known for his pioneering book Hiroshima (1946). Hersey introduced elements typical of literary fiction to the genre of non-fiction, giving it a fresh and novelistic touch. His work still features amongst the highest-rated books ever written.

In the classroom, Hersey would speak of the importance of searching for truth and cultivating narrative flow over guarded objectivism and gathering information. The values of this approach would not simply resonate with Colvin but would later on become her own:  

To me, bravery is not something gigantic and definitive. I don’t get into a war thinking I have to prove myself brave: that would be about me and that would be bravado. […] The point is to try to report as truthfully as you know how. […] You can’t get that information in a war without going to a place where people are being shot and they are shooting at you. The real difficulty is having enough faith in humanity to believe that someone will care. 

The last line from this excerpt, in particular, invites reflection and encourages a return to the question: ‘what is it that makes me care?’ Complex in its socio-historical focus and multivariate storytelling methods, modern war reportage offers a unique reading experience. Most importantly, it calls for readers to be ready to be – as Colvin once was, reading Gellhorn for the first time – marked, struck, and challenged by the text.


[1] https://www.nytimes.com/1999/03/01/business/media-journalism-s-greatest-hits-two-lists-of-a-century-s-top-stories.html

[2] https://www.britannica.com/topic/New-Journalism

[3] Read more excerpts at: https://www.military-history.org/feature/world-war-2/war-reporters-martha-gellhorn.htm

[4] https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/courage-knows-no-gender-r5tqg9zzxjp

[5] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/learn/glossary-terms/feminist-theory

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