Before her most recent trip to Iraq—for a 60 Minutes feature on the pitched battle for territory between Shia militias and Sunni Islamic State fighters—CBS News chief foreign correspondent Lara Logan had a sobering conversation with her 5-year-old daughter, Lola.
“My daughter said, ‘Mommy, can I come with you?’ And I had to say, ‘No. You can’t come with me. I’m working,’” Logan recounted to a lunchtime crowd Tuesday at Manhattan’s Council on Foreign Relations.
“And she said, ‘But I want to come with you.’ And I said, ‘Well, it’s not safe for kids. There are bad guys there. It’s not safe for children,’” Logan continued during a panel on the dangers journalists regularly confront to report on the chaos of the Middle East.
“Then why are you going?” Lola demanded.
“Well,” Logan answered, “because there are always good guys—everywhere there are bad guys, there are always good guys, and I’m going to be with the good guys.”
Lola retorted: “If you don’t come back, that means the bad guys got you.”
“I’m coming back! Mommy always comes back!”
Those might have been soothing words for an anxious youngster, but nothing to rely on, as Logan and fellow panelists Sebastian Junger and Matthieu Aikins—all experienced war correspondents—made vividly clear.
“It’s an ongoing struggle I wrestle with all the time,” said Logan. When moderator Kevin Peraino mentioned the dilemma of covering wars and being a parent, she dryly retorted: “Go for the jugular!”
The 53-year-old Junger —a best-selling author, documentary filmmaker, and Vanity Fair contributing editor who has been bearing witness to systematized violence since the Balkans genocide in 1999—said that no matter how lucky you might feel, it’s impossible to escape mortality.
“War had never really cost me anything personally until my friend Tim was killed,” Junger said, referring to photojournalist Tim Hetherington, who died in 2011 along with fellow photographer Chris Hondros from a mortar blast in Misrata, Libya, during the bloody downfall of Muammar Qaddafi.
“Certainly people had been killed, but nothing that went to the very center of my life,” Junger said. “You cover war, and it will cost you something. It might cost you your life, but it’s certainly going to cost the lives of the people that you love. “
The 44-year-old Logan—who has come through several near-death experiences, especially a harrowing incident during the 2011 Egyptian revolution when she was sexually assaulted by a mob in Cairo’s Tahrir Square—noted that “when you come that close to dying, for me it wasn’t being shot at, it was just being raped by 200 men.”
She recalled that she was at the wheel of her car in the United States when she learned about the death of her close friend Hondros.
“When I heard about Chris, that was a crushing blow,” she said. “I remember just pulling my car over. I was unable to drive.”
Indeed, Logan—who has suffered lingering symptoms from the Tahrir Square attack, requiring several hospital stays—seems also have recovered from a professional catastrophe.
Two years ago, she and her longtime producer, Max McClellan, were publicly criticized and suspended by their CBS bosses after airing a 60 Minutes report based on a State Department security contractor’s fabricated first-person account of the lethal attack on the American diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya.
These days Logan is especially wary of social media.
“You don’t know how much of that is rumor and innuendo,” she said. “I’ve seen stuff reported on blogs that in a million years I wouldn’t have reported, because when we looked into it, it didn’t stand up.”
She added: “I’ve never been on Twitter. I’ve been going through enough trouble without going on Twitter.”
Junger, for his part, said he decided to give up war reporting four years ago because he sensed that his luck was about to run out.
“I was 49 and married, having done it for a decade and a half,” he said. “Suddenly war reporting seemed for the first time in my life like a selfish thing to do—selfish to the people that I care about.”
Recalling that he learned about Hetherington’s death in a phone call, he imagined his wife Daniele constantly bracing for bad news when he was off on one of his dangerous expeditions.
“I felt there was a point where you have to put other people’s welfare first,” Junger said. “If I continued war reporting, every time the phone rang my wife Daniele would think it was the worst possible news about me. She would start paying more of a cost than I was paying. That didn’t seem noble at all. That seemed selfish.”
Magazine writer Aikins, who at 30 has spent nearly a decade of putting himself in perilous positions, said risking the ultimate sacrifice is an accepted cost of doing business—and a worthy one as well.
“I think the idea of a cause worth dying for is at the heart of our idea of morality,” said Aikins, whose award-winning reporting has appeared in Rolling Stone and Harper’s, among other outlets. “A soldier who dies for their country, a mother who dies for her kids—that’s a cause. In some ways the same thing can be said about journalism.”
Junger cited an additional price: the lasting psychic damage caused by up-close-and-personal exposure to so much carnage.
“The first time that I really was sort of a little deranged by trauma was in 2000,” Junger said, referring to his return to New York from northern Afghanistan. “At that point the Taliban had an air force and tanks...and we saw some pretty ugly things before 9/11...It never occurred to me that I might be traumatized.”
Junger went on: “I’m not a particularly neurotic person, but I was puzzled when I started having panic attacks in situations that ordinarily wouldn’t scare me—like the New York City subway at rush hour...
“All of a sudden everything looked like a threat. The crowd of people was somehow going to turn and attack me. The trains were going too fast and they were going to jump the rails and somehow plow into the people on the platform and kill everybody. The light was too bright.
“Rationally, I knew that none of that stuff was a threat, but I couldn’t take the subway for a while,” Junger recounted. “I had no idea it had something to do with my experiences in combat. I just thought I was going crazy—like, ‘Wow, at age 38, it’s finally happening!’”
It was only years later, during a chance conversation with a psychologist at a picnic, that Junger figured out that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s a distressingly common and debilitating syndrome among U.S. soldiers who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also among journalists who covered those conflicts.
Logan, meanwhile, dismissed the idea that war correspondents can, or even should, be dispassionately objective in their work—though she said she strives to be fair to competing interests going back to her days as a cub reporter covering the end of apartheid in her native South Africa.
“It’s so dishonest when journalists pretend that they don’t have feelings and they’re not passionately involved,” Logan said. “We don’t go and do stories because we don’t give a shit.”
Junger, meanwhile, pointed out that it’s virtually impossible, given the conditions of combat journalism, to avoid participating in one form or another.
“I’ve helped carry wounded civilians. I’ve passed ammo to soldiers during firefights,” he said. “There’s a whole gradation of involvement. Just taking a ride on an American helicopter is taking part in the machine that you’re reporting on. But it’s the only way to get out there.”
As for Logan, “I’ve never picked up a weapon,” she said. “I’d shoot myself in the foot.”