Yon tells war stories as he sees and lives them (Part 1 of 2)
Published: March 16, 2010
If you’re brave enough, tough enough and talented enough to be a war correspondent, you may still have to find a media outlet to pay you and open the gate for you to legally enter a war zone. Aside from staying alive, you’d then have to earn acceptance from the men and women in the field as well as those who command. After all these are the people who will help you stay alive. Those are a few reasons war correspondents and milbloggers aren’t a dime a dozen.
Kay B. Day
Of those who are able to cover a war firsthand, Michael Yon has moved very close to the status of legend. His readers, and they are legion, compare him to the gold standard for war correspondents, Ernie Pyle.
Yon commands a fierce fan base. I learned this after I’d cited an article he’d written about a particularly violent area in Iraq. Soon thereafter, although Yon wasn’t my primary focus, thousands of his fans read the article and many made comments urging anyone who could to contribute to Yon’s endeavors. One fan declared, “Yon is a national treasure!”
I learned Yon relies on reader contributions to pay his expenses, no small matter when you are traveling to places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Yon seems passionate about his independent status, about not wanting to be subject to an editorial filter. It’s likely he didn’t want to serve up the sanitized news most outlets must settle for—Yon was after the nitty gritty.
On his website, he wrote, “Anything that might increase the
audience for these stories that I post on my website gets my attention.
But anything that even hints of outside editorial control, or smacks of
someone spinning this material to promote a commercial or political
agenda, gets shown the door.”
Michael Yon, courtesy of Michael Yon Online
In 2005, he recalled, his bank
account “wasn’t the only thing going broke, my primary camera was
crippled, and most of my work and communications gear was rapidly
heading in the same direction.”
So he popped a PayPal support button on his page. “And help flooded in,” he wrote.
also relies on revenue from his photographs as well as from his books.
He self-published ‘Danger Close’ in 1999 and sold 8,000 copies. He
reprinted the book in hard cover because of public demand.
freelancer, Yon isn’t just maneuvering a war zone. He has to keep a
writing business afloat, one requiring funds for travel, gear,
equipment, any medical needs and whatever else he needs.
ability to evoke compassion with a simple caption beneath a photo of a
medic comforting a wounded soldier stems in part from the fact he
served in the military as a Green Beret. Yon isn’t just observing and
reporting from a distance—he understands the men and women he writes
about because he has been there and done that, as the saying goes.
read Yon’s posts for backgrounders and research. Politicians read them
for the same reasons. Military families read his posts because it helps
them understand what their loved ones are confronting. And they often
learn more from these posts than they do from top tier media because
Yon also posts personal remarks on social networks like Facebook where
he has more than 18,000 fans subscribing to his page.
his posts are about the war—one photograph he titled ‘Moon over
Kandahar’ could stand alone untitled as a visual work of art needing no
other legs than the remarkable image. He has received wide acclaim for
his photography and for his writing.
Yon has been praised by the
left, the right and by those who lie in between. His work has been
cited by blue chip publications and he has been the subject of comments
by anchors for major news networks. He marches to his own tune and he
refuses to permit politics to cloud his coverage of a war. He sees his
independence as conferring credibility from “the people who trust me
with their stories.”
Those “people” could be infantry, officers, civilians or the US Secretary of Defense, depending on Yon’s schedule.
was a time when Yon had to maneuver for acceptance. He first traveled
to Iraq in 2004 at a time when he simply viewed himself as a writer
rather than a war correspondent. By 2005 he had become a blogger, and
that word didn’t exactly inspire respect from those in charge of
approving media. But as bloggers began to rack up major scoops, the
climate changed and he wrote, “[A ]readership swelled around my work.”
Yon set up his own self-titled website in a magazine style format. He now files dispatches and posts articles there.
his commitment to independence, Yon doesn’t see himself as a political
activist. He wrote that he eventually came to see the value of being an
independent—“Not as a rabble rouser or as pugnacious individualist
reflexively bucking ‘the system,’ merely someone who could buck the
system when it needed bucking.”
After I wrote him to seek
permission for an interview, I mentioned how touched I was by the
dedication of his many fans. Yon’s response indicates that no matter
where we are, our partnership with the reader is paramount.
said, “I've got some great readers. They really cause me to get out of
bed early and go to bed late! Trying to bring them more of what's going
on over here.”
With those words, Yon speaks to what is at the
heart of being a writer—the encounter between the storyteller and his
fellows, both in war and at home where the reader marches alongside
seeing, smelling and tasting the war, wondering what lies ahead and
waiting with anticipation.
Florida journalist Kay B. Day has won awards for poetry, nonfiction and fiction. The author of two books, she has written for
The Christian Science Monitor, United Press International,
The Florida Times-Union and Sky News. To learn more about Kay Day, see www.kayday.com. To read Kay's other Web Savvy columns about writing for the Web, click here.