The Despair of the War Journalist

Martha Gellhorn (photo by Sarah J. Coleman)

I watched a truly dreadful film on HBO recently, called “Hemingway & Gellhorn.”  Sadly, a more laughable portrayal of the two writers in question cannot be imagined.  This was doubly sad because I am quite a fan of Martha Gellhorn’s journalism and she was done no favors by this ridiculous film.  However, I am happy to report there is a fine article about her, and the problems facing war journalists, up on the Guernica website.  It is entitled “The Hubris and Despair of War Journalism” and is written by Susie Linfield.  I recommend all writers read it, especially those working in non-fiction.

Linfield says:

Some of her pieces can devastate us anew. “Behind the barbed wire and the electric fence, the skeletons sat in the sun and searched themselves for lice,” she wrote from Dachau in May 1945. Her words still sting; in another dispatch from a just-defeated Germany, she mocked the self-pity and denial of ordinary Germans: “I hid a Jew for six weeks. I hid a Jew for eight weeks. (I hid a Jew, he hid a Jew, all God’s chillun hid Jews).” The unadulterated fury of these pieces often shocks my journalism students—Gellhorn herself later termed the Germany articles “paeans of hate”—and it is doubtful that they would be published (or written) today. But there was nothing in her tone that would have shocked American readers at the time (or, for that matter, those in England, France, Holland, Greece, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Russia . . . the list goes on). And it is awfully hard to imagine how one could write a balanced dispatch from Dachau.

Linfield writes about Gellhorn’s despair in the face of the world’s indifference toward the suffering of others.  This despair, the article suggests, is now the norm among war correspondents.  This is a sentiment I agree with, and which I wrote about in my novel on the same subject, The Radiant City.  Linfield quotes war correspondent Jeffrey Gettleman  as saying journalists must “put ourselves in the shoes of the suffering.”  This is, of course, what those of us who write novels and short stories about suffering must do as well, and it is what we invite our readers to do.  Is this hard?  Of course.  Is it uncomfortable?  Undeniably.  However, it is also the way we bear witness, the way we stand with the oppressed, and the way we develop empathy that may then be applied in our daily lives.

In The Radiant City I quoted Rev. Ernest Hunt, who said, “Cynicism is the last refuge of the brokenhearted.”  Gellhorn was certainly brokenhearted.  The article goes on to say:

…she wrote a scathing, heartbroken essay in which she looked back on the journalistic work that she and others had published in the ’30s, when they warned the Western democracies about the fascist threat. This “Federation of Cassandras” had, she charged, turned in “a perfectly useless performance”: “The guiding light of journalism was no stronger than a glow-worm . . . For all the good our articles did, they might have been written in invisible ink, printed on leaves, and loosed to the wind.”

And so what’s a reader/writer to do?  I suggest we vow not to turn away, to speak out when we can, to write our blogs and articles and books, and to read them, even if they aren’t all clappy-happy, gleaming feel-good books.  In my latest novel, Our Daily Bread, I’ve tackled the issue of child abuse, and a town that knew what was happening and chose to do nothing.  Sound familiar?  Think Penn State. (Brilliant article on this subject by Maureen Dowd — click here to read.)  Think the Catholic Church.  Some people have said they don’t want to read about such things.  Fair enough.  No one’s forcing them.  But I suggest that to take on this writing and reading is to stand with the victims, to refuse to remain silent, to redraw the invisible ink, to gather the leaves loosed to the wind and shake them in the face of cruelty and tyranny.


  1. lucky8 on June 21, 2012 at 10:00 pm

    Brilliant essay Lauren! Thank you for refusing to remain silent, and for helping others find a voice.

    • Lauren B. Davis on June 22, 2012 at 9:20 am

      Thanks very much, lucky8!

  2. Janet222 on June 22, 2012 at 11:21 am

    Hello Lauren, I saw this essay on Open Salon, congratulations on it being chosen as an “editors pick” and also being on the cover page of Open Salon. As you always do, you’ve cut to the core of another aspect of human behavior that is hard to understand. Thanks for encouraging all of us as your fellow citizens to have higher expectations of ourselves.

    • Lauren B. Davis on June 22, 2012 at 11:42 am

      That’s very kind, Janet. Much appreciated.

  3. Grant Staley on June 22, 2012 at 5:30 pm

    Nice essay. Remaining silent is tyranny’s greatest friend. While not as devastating as the events of the 1940’s, the silence of too many permits the few to lead the US into disturbing stances that have horrible consequences for many both at home and around the world. Let us keep our voices clear, truthful, and loud.

    • Lauren B. Davis on June 22, 2012 at 6:26 pm

      Thank you, Grant. Well said.

  4. Beth Caldwell on June 28, 2012 at 9:13 am

    Hi Lauren. I just discovered you and your blog through the Writers Union of Canada and became an instant fan. Marvellous. Inspirational. Real. Thank you. 🙂

    • Lauren B. Davis on June 28, 2012 at 9:48 am

      Thanks so much, Beth. It’s lovely to see you here. I look forward to your blog as well. Cheers.

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