THE C46 WAS in serious trouble. High over the Himalayas, its left engine dying, the plane lurched violently up and down. The pilot screamed back to the passengers, but they couldn't hear him. Grabbing their parachutes, they prepared for the worst. As the plane tilted into a final nosedive, the lucky ones threw themselves out the door and into thin air.
Having never parachuted before, CBS News correspondent Eric Sevareid was lucky to alight safely on a jungle mountainside. Over the next few days, Sevareid and his fellow survivors created a makeshift camp. One morning the camp was surrounded by 20 chanting, naked tribesmen carrying sharpened spears. Not knowing what to do, Sevareid approached one and raised his palm. ''How!" he said. The gesture seemed to calm the infamously violent Naga tribesmen, and allied troops soon rescued the survivors.
Sevareid never talked much about his harrowing escape in 1943. Like all combat journalists, he accepted the inherent dangers in his work. He understood that reporting from war zones meant gambling with his life. Combat journalism requires cognitive dissonance. Reporters must always believe in -- and work to ensure -- their survival, yet they cannot ignore the reality that survival in such violent conditions is primarily attributable to luck. Like infantrymen, war correspondents grow superstitious, cynical, and emotionally calloused the longer they are exposed to the chaos of combat.
The dangers of war reporting have been brought into high relief with the near-fatal injuries sustained by ABC News anchorman Bob Woodruff and his cameraman, Doug Vogt. A few weeks earlier, Jill Carroll, a freelance reporter for the Christian Science Monitor, was taken hostage after an ambush in which her translator was murdered.
We know reporters are willing to go to insanely dangerous locales for our benefit. Yet few of us ask why. What draws -- or compels -- particular journalists to this risky endeavor? Journalists rarely discuss this in public. They prefer not to be the story; their work, most argue, speaks for itself. They are neutral, detached, independent reporters of events.
When asked directly, journalists often point to their public service mission. By bringing the horrors of combat to the American public, they expose the brutality of mankind and highlight the tragedy of war. As neutral observers, not combatants, they claim a singular moral position. They are both witnesses and surrogates for the public. Without combat journalists, the public could never understand the savagery, the costs, both human and psychological, and the meaning of war.
These idealistic explanations are accurate but they hardly suffice. There is a dirty little secret in journalism: War reporting is the fastest way to get ahead. The trade-off is obvious. In exchange for putting one's life on the line for a story, a journalistic organization will reward that courage with a promotion. Being in the right place at the right time is the essential journalistic value, and war zones always qualify as ''right" places. Nothing burnishes a journalistic résumé like time spent ''in country."
Yet the combat journalist is not motivated solely by careerism -- if at all. An enormous amount of ego gratification is involved as well. The heroic ideal of the globe-trotting war correspondent provides an inspirational model. Whether it is Edward R. Murrow on a bombing mission over Berlin or Christiane Amanpour dodging bullets in Sarajevo, the public display of courage attracts a certain kind of idealistic yet narcissistic personality.
Like most soldiers, many combat journalists are young and have few family commitments. It is with the arrival of marriage and children that many journalists are forced to decide whether risking one's life is justified. This can lead to tension within news organizations; editorial assignments carry the risk of becoming life-and-death decisions. ABC News recently lost a lawsuit in Britain when correspondent Richard Gizbert alleged his contract was not renewed because he refused a ''voluntary" assignment to Iraq. Gizbert, a seasoned war reporter, is no coward. He informed his superiors that family responsibilities changed his willingness to accept the work. Shortly thereafter he was let go.
Gizbert's prudence, however, is not a virtue prized among war reporters. The job requires accepting enormous risk and living life as a gamble. So why do so many volunteer? One explanation rarely surfaces in this discussion. That's the powerful, almost narcotic pull of experiencing life at its most intense. In the war zone, senses are primed, awareness is heightened, and profound bonds of friendship are indelibly formed. Sharing drinks and stories of narrow escapes, the combat journalist finds a community supportive of the addictive adrenaline habit that infects them all.
Risking life daily is powerfully romantic, and challenging that concept is anathema to the war reporter. In the conclusion to ''Dispatches," Michael Herr recounts a conversation with the severely injured photojournalist Tim Page. Page's body had been badly ravaged by a bomb in Vietnam. A publisher proposed that Page author a book titled ''Through with War." The book would ''take the glamour out of war."
Page would hear none of it. ''Take the glamour out of war! I mean, how the bloody hell can you do that?"
Michael Socolow teaches journalism at the University of Maine.