Note: I wrote this piece for The Digital Journalist in 2004. Now, almost 12 years later, with guns seemingly in control of our lives in America, I thought it worth repeating as we enter a new year. Though some references may seem dated, it is still one of my favorites.
Recently the Wall Street Journal ran a story about journalists in Iraq who are now carrying weapons. I will not go into the details of the piece. Though thorough, it was incomplete and far too benign. The excuse is that more journalists have died in Iraq than in other wars over a similar amount of time. At one time journalists had respect from friend and foe alike. Now they are fair game and under constant threat of harm. Nevertheless, carrying a weapon will not stop the killing of journalists nor their dying by accident, by ambush, or from long-range rockets.
I have been thinking about that article ever since I first read it, and I have a confession to make. First, a story. When I arrived in Saigon in 1966 to run the bureau for NBC News, two sage pieces of advice came my way from Jack Fern, the man I had come to succeed. At least at the time I thought his advice was sage. He suggested I carry a folded one hundred dollar bill inside my wallet. The bill had to be new, because the Vietnamese revered new money. In case the Viet Cong captured me, I might get lucky and bribe my way to safety. Not a bad idea, I thought, and to assure a better chance of getting free, I kept two new one hundred dollars in my wallet. I learned quickly how foolish a notion that was. If I got into trouble and needed money, I probably would not have had time to reach for it. Less important but more practical, with the rising black market, the money would have little real value, no matter how much all Vietnamese loved “green” get-away money. I did not ever think of it that way. If my life came down to needed or using money in a dicey situation, the hundred was truly peanuts. However, I kept the two bills neatly folded in my wallet through all my years overseas.
His other advice was stronger, and, in all ways, more frightening. He gave me a German automatic pistol, a Walther P-38, vintage World War II in beautiful condition. The barrel was long and narrow and had a beautiful blue-black sheen. Learn to shoot the weapon in case you need it, he warned. Did I carry the gun ever? Well, that answer comes in a minute. Mostly it stayed in the drawer of the night table in the bedroom of my fifth floor apartment at 104 Nguyen Hue, Saigon. It sat and waited, mostly forgotten. It did not rust because every now and then I ran a cue-tip dipped in light oil down the barrel. I never fired it. I never carried it. That is until the Tet Offensive in early 1968.
So, my confession. I actually carried that venerable weapon for a few days in February 1968. We were in the middle of the Tet Offensive. Saigon was burning.
The Viet Cong were everywhere. The streets surrounding our office were empty day The Viet Cong were everywhere. The streets surrounding our office were empty day and night. American MP’s patrolled the streets. We heard firing all the time. Quiet was rare. In battles throughout the country American troops were dying faster than flies in summer. We believed, as did American intelligence, that our neighborhood would be a target. The Saigon city hall was at one end of the street. The old Opera House, recently converted to the only elected legislature the previous year, was at the other end of the street. Across from the NBC bureau was the Rex BOQ and JUSPAO, the propaganda and information arm of the American government. Two major hotels, the Caravel and the Continental, were on opposite corners, down the block from my bureau. Many journalists, including those on my staff, lived in each, and CBS News had its bureau in the Caravel. It looked like the time had come to defend myself should the need arise. I went to my apartment one floor above the bureau, removed the gun from my bedside table, slipped in a clip, sighted it and just for a moment I did not recognize myself. I went back downstairs. Those in the office looked at me with surprise. I carried the gun in my waistband on my right side. It sagged. It did not feel comfortable. I then tried the gun in my right hand pocket, but the weight of the iron pulled the thin Chinos I wore almost from my waist. I tried the gun buried in the belt at the small of my back. That, too, did not work. I felt awkward. I knew everyone was watching me. Then someone laughed and said, “By the time you get to use that thing, you’ll either be dead or maybe you’d already put a bullet in your toe. Then what?” I wore the weapon for two days, feeling more foolish by the minute. I finally removed the clip, put it away, and forgot about the gun for the remainder of my stay in Vietnam.
My old friend, one of the best cameramen to ever carry an Auricon during the Vietnam War, had a simple theory about journalists and guns. Huynh said, “During combat, if ever I needed a gun, the Americans would have to be losing so badly that there would be many available on the ground. I would have my pick, but it would make no difference. By the time I got to use any weapon, it would be too late anyway. I would be dead.” When reporters carry a weapon, forget the argument of how the subject of your story looks at you when they see you armed. It changes how you cover news. Reporters never want to be part of the story. When you carry you have become a different person. A gun attached to you means you possess new and different powers, dangerous to yourself and others.
I know Iraq is different. I know times have changed and that journalists have become targets, but they should never think that by wearing a gun, they protect themselves from harm. Possessing a gun opens the possibility of your using it. In the hands of a professional, using a gun is often deadly. In the hands an amateur, a wannabe, the potential for a mistake is endless. In war or at any time when a journalist carries a gun he becomes a man with three arms or six fingers, unneeded appendages. It might be fashionable to accessorize with the latest in firearms, but it is wrong.
Invariably it will backfire before it front loads to success. As a journalist when carrying, do you believe you can go into a mob with a loaded gun and face the wrath of the angry crowd when it turns on you because you are no longer the person they thought you were? By carrying, you lose your status as a non- combatant. It is a signal you are fair game. Your day is over as a non-combatant. You become a fool. Fools do not survive in a war zone. If you carry a weapon, it increases the possibility you may use it. Innocents might get hurt and die. You might get hurt and die. Suddenly you are an offensive weapon. You have ruined lives, including yours. Be prepared to ask, “Was it worth it? Finally, readers should know why I have a strong prejudice against journalists carrying guns. Handling them is bad enough. During the Vietnam War, my late wife Josephine, then young and vital, suffered a serious wound to her head when an NBC News soundman accidentally discharged a North Vietnamese AK 47 he had been cleaning in the bureau. Fortunately, she survived to live a long and productive life as a wife and mother. She died this past summer after going into a coma and never recovering. The reason for her death stated on the Nassau county death certificate said simply the cause of her death was that gunshot wound she suffered in late 1967 at the hands of a man who made a stupid mistake. If you value life, do not do the same.