The flak jackets aren't just for show

War correspondents put their lives on the line to entertain us and bring us details that no one else

There is an iconic image from every war. Sometimes it's a photograph, or a piece of film; sometimes it's a piece of iconic journalism, as happened this week, with Sky News's Alex Crawford's stellar journey along with the rebels into the heart of Tripoli.

The reporting, and the sight of other journalists trapped in the Rixos Hotel (but subsequently released), comes as a reminder of the lengths to which battle-hardened hacks will go to provide us with the inside story, and why war correspondents remain among the purest and most trusted sources in a profession that has its fair share of detractors.

If you harbour any doubts as to the risks taken by reporters to bring you these iconic images of war to your settee, you might want to check out the War Correspondent exhibition at the Imperial War Museum North (open until January 2012). There, you'll see tales of courage under fire and desperate struggles to get the reality of conflict over to viewers and readers back home, and other evidence of the sacrifices made to get to the story - a bullet lodged in a mobile phone that saved one reporter's life; a news producer's false leg, made necessary by injuries sustained while trying to capture the action, and so on. And there are the other stories, too: those of reporters who didn't make it back home.

For those wondering why correspondents on TV are constantly decked out in helmets and bulletproof jackets, there's a more prosaic reason than safety. It might be tempting for us at home, we who live without fear of bullets whizzing through our windows or rockets exploding nearby, to imagine that these war correspondents are nothing but a bunch of showoffs, strapped into layers of protective gear, but the dress does more than protect: it shows as clearly as possible that someone is not a combatant, which can be the difference between life and death, as the death toll from 'friendly' and 'enemy' fire alike shows.

But one exhibit in War Correspondent - Michael Nicholson's battered helmet, which he wore while covering the Vietnam conflict - provides the answer. The helmet couldn't possibly stop a bullet, he explains, but if he did get killed, at least the word PRESS written in felt-tip pen on the side might get his body brought back home for burial.

Correspondents including Kate Adie, Jeremy Bowen and Brian Hanrahan describe the realities of trying to get to the front line, and there are exhibits that show how they did it - from a bullet-riddled Land Rover that was shot at in Gaza to Martin Bell's white suit and the burkha in which John Simpson managed to cross into Iraq, War Correspondent shows how ingenuity can be as important as bravery when it comes to finding the story.

A war correspondent aims to be neither 'friendly' nor 'enemy' but detached from the combatants altogether - not an easy thing to do in the days of embedded reporters, with some journalists even accepting campaign medals nowadays. There's a section from John Pilger's documentary, The War You Don't See, in which Rageh Omaar discusses his role in reporting the orchestrated toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue, looking back with the benefit of hindsight on the iconic images and how he may have been manipulated.

But there is still an uneasy relationship between combatant and press - and reporters can find themselves in the crosshairs. It's easy to mock journalists for going kitted out in flak jackets when they're on screen, but we're not there, and we aren't seeing the bloodshed that they are, or feeling the fear. They're the real journalism heroes, putting their lives on the line to entertain us during the six o'clock news and bring us the details that no one else can. The only thing I think we can hope is that, to paraphrase Brian Hanrahan, we count them all out and we count them all back. We need them.

War Correspondent is at the Imperial War Museum North, The Quays, Trafford Wharf Road, Manchester, until January 2, 2012.

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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear