World view - Michela Wrong introduces the Incontinent

Are those who call themselves "war correspondents" really brave? Some are, and I would divide them i

I was unhappy about it. My fellow speaker, a Portuguese journalist who had hitchhiked across Angola, baulked. Allan Little of the BBC was equally ill at ease, and as for Kate Adie, she was having none of it.

However varied our experiences, those of us gathered in the authors' tent at the Edinburgh International Book Festival last month could agree on one thing: we all objected to being described as "war correspondents" in the festival brochure.

I suppose there are plenty of logical arguments to explain this reaction. The main one must be that, like "investigative journalist", the phrase implies some additional skill has been grafted on to the job description of the ordinary correspondent. In fact, whether covering fashion shows or rebel insurgencies, journalists always bring the same, relatively simple tools to the task: a readiness to ask questions, a healthy scepticism, a talent for breaking complex situations down into digestible morsels. Only the settings change.

But I suspect there is another reason why even those who, like Adie and Little, have done more than their share of stand-ups encased in blue Kevlar jib at "war correspondent". It comes down to that thing called courage and each journalist's baffled attempt to work out what constitutes it, whether they as individuals possess it, and whether it is a characteristic worth aspiring to at all.

Looking back over my journalistic career, I would divide the brave into three main categories: the Ignorant, the Insane and the Incontinent.

The Ignorant are those who are too young, stupid or both to understand the finality of death. They drive straight down Sniper's Alley because they don't know any better, and hoot with laughter when told everyone else sticks to the side streets. They arrive in war zones wearing backpacks and goatees, and offer themselves as cannon fodder to media outlets that would never allow their own staff to run such risks. Their Ready Brek glow is powered by pure adrenalin. It is not, unfortunately, bulletproof. "Like all young men, he thought he was immortal," the mother of Dan Eldon said after the young photojournalist was beaten to death by a mob in Somalia. The Ignorant either expire almost immediately - witness the TV producer who breezily rejected the bulletproof jacket thrown to him by a UN peacekeeper on landing at Sarajevo and died before even leaving the airport - or they graduate into another category.

Some become the Insane. These journalists have seen their best friends shredded by machine-gun fire and taken award-winning pictures of the event. They drive without safety belts, drink without fear of hangovers, hoover up industrial quantities of drugs and bonk like rabbits: constant proximity to death makes you horny. The racing drivers of the media world, they feel neither fear nor disgust; in fact, they revel in the forensic details of the horrors around them. They are probably suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. At least that's what their partners back home - who are about to leave them - suspect.

The Insane are cliquish and insular. "There are tourists," sneered a French journalist when his Spanish cameraman friend was killed in a rebel ambush in Sierra Leone, "and there are fellow travellers." Colleagues regard them as blessed by the gods, a blessing not shared by ordinary mortals. "If you are travelling with so-and-so, you know you've got too close," they quip. But eventually, the odds work their ineluctable logic and one of the Insane's names appears in a Reuters news alert.

Finally, there are the Incontinent, who probably started off as the Ignorant, flirted with joining the Insane, then had their first child and woke one morning to discover they were afraid of virtually everything. In their attempt to remain working professionals, they wage a pants-wetting, teeth-gritting battle against terror. They have been around long enough to have a precise appreciation of the risks, from the ludicrous optimism required to fly Sudan Airways to the banal probability of being mowed down on Nairobi's Uhuru Highway by a brakeless matatu minibus. They regard the Ignorant with exasperation and the Insane with awe, but do wonder if the latter are quite human. They get irritated when their friends say, "I never get on a plane if I feel uneasy", because they get uneasy before every flight. They get on because if they didn't they wouldn't be able to describe themselves as "foreign correspondents", let alone "war correspondents".

Which category constitutes courage? Which deserves respect? All? None? I have spent my career puzzling over the question. All I can tell you with any certainty is this: if you are at a party and someone wearing a khaki waistcoat with more webbing, zips and pockets than seems strictly necessary introduces himself as a "war correspondent", head in the opposite direction faster than a Black Hawk buzzing over the rooftops of Najaf.

This article first appeared in the 13 September 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Can Islam change?