David Axe: A Face of Modern War Correspondence

By Will Grant

The US presence in Iraq has faded. Our withdrawal from Afghanistan looms on the horizon. The first chapters may be closing in our introduction to modern warfare—the age of MRAPs, iPads, air strikes called in with cell phones, and everyone wears Camelbak hydration systems.

This age of modern warfare has, not surprisingly, spawned a contingent of modern war correspondents. Just like soldiers, they shoot video with cell phones, they hammer out Twitter posts from the front lines, and their dispatches appear on the Internet within seconds of the events they witness.

Among these new correspondents is freelance journalist David Axe, a regular contributor to Military.com and Wired magazine’s Danger Room blog. He also writes for a variety of other outlets and runs the website WarIsBoring.com. And although advances in technology have changed a reporter’s job in a war zone, much remains the same as it was for Ernie Pyle, Walter Cronkite, or Tom Brokaw.

“I’ve been shot at,” Axe says. “It comes with the territory. But most of the people who shot at me weren’t very good at it. Just look at how many American journalists have been shot to death in combat. It’s the bombs or IEDs that will kill you.”

As far as improvised explosive devices, which are clearly a facet of modern warfare, Axe got a close-up look at one in Afghanistan when the military vehicle he was traveling in passed what looked like an abandoned motorcycle. Seconds later the vehicle was on its side and men were wounded.

The phrase ‘war is boring’ came from a soldier, and a friend, in Iraq who made the comment in passing. Axe thought it rang true and eventually published a comic book, or graphic novel, called War is Boring: Bored Stiff, Scared to Death in the World’s Worst War Zones. The critics applauded it for its honesty, boldness, and insight.

“What’s the phrase—long stretches of pure boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror?” he asks. “You wait around for stuff to happen. And it eventually does happen, but there’s a lot of waiting.”

Axe cut his teeth in war reporting in Iraq. After earning a master’s degree in English from the University of South Carolina-Columbia, Axe worked as a reporter for the Columbia, South Carolina-based Free Times covering county politics. He says it wasn’t very exciting, which isn’t hard to believe. So at the end of 2004 when a contingent of South Carolina guardsmen was about to be deployed to Iraq, he asked his editor if he could cover the soldiers’ deployment.

“My editor agreed to it,” Axe says, “but said, ‘we cant afford to be without you for six weeks. We’ll send you, but we’re also firing you.’”

He filed stories from Iraq for the Free Times, but soon found himself jobless in a war zone. Becoming a freelance journalist seemed a logical step, and he started writing for other publications. Over the course of two years, he was in Iraq eight times. He spent a lot of time embedded, a lot of time in hotels, and learned the ropes of military reporting.

From his experience in Iraq, and following his long-held inclination toward military history, he took an active interest in other conflicts. He reported from East Timor, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Somalia. After being in Somalia, he became intrigued with darkest Africa. That is, he sought to learn more about and see firsthand the many conflicts plaguing the continent. Of those, there was no shortage, and he reported from the Sudan, Chad, the Congo, and Gabon, among other places.

“The embed process is fairly transparent,” Axe says. “If you apply and you’re persistent, and you work the phones and email, you can make it happen. But if you piss off the military, they ignore you for awhile.”

Of course, the nature of journalism means not everybody is always excited to see the published material.

“You don’t write stories for your sources,” he says. “You write stories for your readers. And sometimes people don’t like what you write.”

At the end of the day, a journalist’s job is to not only relay the facts, but to also provide some perspective on what he or she witnesses. That’s a what makes a good journalist valuable–the ability to contextualize events to help the public understand both the details and the bigger-picture significance.

Of the events at the forefront of concern for war correspondents today is the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. To understand the condition of the country, the emotions of the Afghans, and the level of perceived security, we rely on both the military and the media.

“You’ll hear a steady drum beat of good news coming out of Afghanistan,” Axe says. “It’s my job to compare what our leaders say to what’s actually happening on the ground.”

Top photo courtesy of David Axe.

Last photo by Duane Burdick.

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