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The Last War Correspondent

July 29, 2018

 Matthew Fisher in the cockpit of  a RCAF C-17 en route to Afghanistan in 2011. Photo courtesy of Matthew Fisher

 

 

“I’ve been everywhere man.  I’ve been everywhere man.  Crossed the deserts bare, man.  I’ve breathed the mountain air, man.  Travel, I’ve had my share, man.  I’ve been everywhere.”

 

--I’ve Been Everywhere by Johnny Cash

 

 

Early in life, Matthew Fisher knew he wanted to travel and see the world.  And after working for over three decades as a foreign and war correspondent, he has accomplished what he set out to do so many years ago.

 

According to the veteran Canadian newspaper reporter, he has travelled to 170 countries, visited every state in the United States and every province and territory in Canada.  And for the past 35 years, Fisher has spent between 200 and 320 days out of every year travelling the globe in pursuit of international stories. 

 

Without a doubt, Fisher is highly regarded within Canadian journalism.  In fact, colleagues describe him as the dean of foreign correspondents, a title that he has earned by working overseas covering revolutions, civil conflicts, wars, as well as international sporting events, including the Olympics.

 

By his own count, Fisher has covered 20 conflicts, placing him in a very elite group of journalists.  War correspondents are a special breed, researching and writing stories about battles, soldiers, and the terrible toll war takes on civilians.  And war correspondents also take calculated risks, putting their lives on the line to bring readers news of the world.

 

Crippled newspaper industry

 

However, the rise of the Internet and the decline of advertising revenues have crippled the newspaper industry, forcing media organizations to fire journalists, close newspapers, and drastically curtail international news coverage.  The writing has been on the wall for years.  The number of Canadian foreign correspondents has declined steadily and corporate investments in quality international journalism have diminished.

 

In the rapidly changing Canadian media landscape, Matthew Fisher could very well be the last real war correspondent, a throwback to a time when journalists were adventure seeking mavericks who would sleep in a different bed every night or in the back seat of a car, moving from hot spot to hot spot to get the next big scoop.

 

The war correspondent must be tough, resilient, resourceful, and possess solid judgement and experience in order to survive and get the job done in conflict zones where life is cheap and death is just a heartbeat away.

 

 Matthew Fisher (right) with Lance Corporal Mark Cattabay (left) & Lance Corporal Beaut Mattiota in the turret of Black Six, a Canadian-built LAV, deep inside Iraq in March 2003. Photo courtesy of Matthew Fisher.

 

On a practical level, Fisher, who turned 64 in July, believes that language skills are important for journalists who venture into the field.  He speaks English, French, and German fluently, and possesses “a basic working knowledge of Russian and Spanish.”  His “big regret” in the languages department is that he can barely make himself understood in Arabic and only speaks a few words in Mandarin, because these two languages, in particular, are “mighty important for a journalist these days.”

 

When he first embarked on a career in journalism, did the young Matthew think that he would get to see so much of the world and experience so much excitement?  “That certainly was my hope,” he replied.

 

When it came to deciding on a career, Fisher, at the age of 16, had a conversation with his father, Douglas Fisher,  a successful federal politician who is perhaps best remembered for his career as a print and broadcast journalist after he left politics.  

 

The teenage Matthew told his father that he didn’t know what he wanted to do for a living but that he wanted to travel.  And the elder Fisher imparted the best advice that his son has ever received.  “He said, ‘You make sure somebody else pays for it,’” he recalled.  “In other words, travel for work.”

 

Matthew Fisher seemed destined to become a war correspondent.  “I very much wanted to cover wars, because I grew up in a home where both my parents were veterans of Europe in the Second World War,” he said.  Moreover, Fisher’s godfather was a prisoner of war (POW) after being captured by the Germans.  And many of the family’s friends had been in the war.  “So I heard an awful lot about conflict,” he added.

 

Even though Fisher started out as a sports reporter, in his spare time he “would go and spend a few weeks trying to see wars.”  He recalled that the first conflict he saw firsthand, at age 19 or 20, was the revolution in Mozambique.  Fisher “hung out with a group of European war correspondents”, but none of his reports from Mozambique were published by any news organization. 

 

“Nevertheless, it whet my appetite,” Fisher said of the life of a war correspondent.  He continued as an overseas sports reporter in his 20s.  “But every chance I got I would try to go to a conflict zone.” 

 

For example, while covering basketball tournaments in Mexico, Fisher would head down to Central America to cover wars in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador.  “Again nobody really wanted any of the work I produced, but it was all grist for the mill,” he said of his early experiences.

  

“It wasn’t actually until I joined The Globe and Mail in 1984 that I first got my chance to start doing some military journalism seriously,” he noted.  He covered the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe in 1989, “which certainly had a military-security dimension.”

 

In 1991, Fisher covered the First Gulf War in which an American led coalition ousted Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces from Kuwait.  The war marked the completion of his transformation into a full-fledged war correspondent. 

 

Fisher has experienced a range of conflicts over the years, giving him unique insights that inform his reporting.  “Without the context, you don’t really get an idea if this is a good war, a bad war, or a just war, or how the local population are reacting,” he explained.  “I think the more you do it (war reporting), as with anything else in life, the more you can compare strands and make more reasoned judgements about you are seeing.”

 

Douglas Fisher

 

“He was a very well-known politician and journalist” over the decades, Fisher said of his celebrated father.  Douglas Fisher was first elected as a Member of Parliament under the CCF (Cooperative Commonwealth Federation) banner, defeating Liberal powerhouse C.D. Howe in the 1957 federal election. 

 

According to douglasfisher.ca, a website devoted to the elder Fisher, his 1957 electoral victory is “arguably the greatest upset in Canadian history.”  And he won re-election three times and was part of the transition of the CCF into the New Democratic Party (NDP).  Douglas Fisher eventually resigned his seat, retiring from politics undefeated. 

 

“After that, he became a journalist,” Matthew Fisher said of his late father.  Douglas Fisher’s heydays as a journalist were from the 1960s through the 1990s.  Not only did he write multiple newspaper columns every week, the highly regarded journalist was also a regular on CTV’s Question Period as well as having his own television show on CJOH in Ottawa.  Having spent five decades on Parliament Hill, Douglas Fisher had become the “oracle” of Canadian politics, his son said.

 

How did Douglas Fisher react when his son told him that he was going to be a foreign correspondent?  “My father always wanted me to cover Canadian politics,” replied Matthew Fisher. 

 

“I wouldn’t say that he was hugely disappointed.  But he was somewhat disappointed that I was not as fascinated by Parliament and the political scene in Ottawa as I was by being overseas.  But he was quite supportive of what I did.”

 

In fact, Douglas sometimes provided “avuncular” advice to his son, and at other times he imparted practical knowledge about journalism and war. 

 

Douglas Fisher (left) with son Matthew (right) in 2005. Photo courtesy of Matthew Fisher.

 

For example, on the eve of the 2003 war in Iraq, when his war correspondent son was about to accompany a U.S. Marine unit into battle, Douglas sent the younger man a poignant letter.  The letter was “about how it feels as a soldier” the night before a big battle, “all the things that go through your mind,” recalled Matthew Fisher.  And the message was that “war is capricious, and people will die around you, and you may survive without a scratch.  And there is no rhyme or reason to it; it’s just plain luck.”

 

The letter “affected me quite a bit,” said Fisher.  “It was a lovely note he wrote to me.”

 

Fallen colleagues

 

In Fisher’s line of work, journalists are sometimes killed reporting the news.  For example, he recalled the death of Dial Torgerson, a veteran foreign correspondent with the Los Angeles Times, in Honduras back in 1983.  Torgerson was killed when a rocket propelled grenade hit the vehicle that he was riding in near the Nicaraguan border.  Just the day before, Fisher had been out in the field with the L.A. Times reporter.  “So that really brought home the dangers of the job,” Fisher recalled.

 

“In Afghanistan, my Christmas replacement, Michelle Lang of the Calgary Herald had come over and only had been there a couple of days (after) I had gone home for Christmas when she was killed by a landmine” or Improvised Explosive Device (IED).  Four Canadian soldiers also perished in that deadly incident. 

 

“Again, it was a reminder to me of how dangerous…,” said Fisher, his voice trailing off.  “I don’t know how many people I have practiced journalism with who died…just off the top of my head, I can think of eight, or nine or ten.  It’s probably a bit more than that.”

 

There are different kinds of war reporting, some much more dangerous than others.  And Fisher has often found himself in dangerous situations.  “For a fairly long time,” conceded Fisher, “I reported at the deep end of the pool in quite dangerous and unpredictable situations.  And you have to take calculated risks sometimes.  And also know when not to take any risks at all.” 

 

Iraq wars

 

During the 1991 Gulf War, Fisher was known as a “unilateral” journalist, meaning that he was not embedded with the forces of any army and had to travel on his own without any military support, which often proved to be problematic.  But in the end, he managed to get around to a lot of different locations to cover the war in Iraq.    

 

However, things had changed by the time of the 2003 U.S. led invasion of Iraq.  By that time, said Fisher, it had become much more difficult to be a unilateralist, “because by then the Americans had their PR (public relations) machinery much more organized and it became a bit more restrictive for journalists.”

 

During that conflict, Fisher was embedded with the American military, covering battles from the front lines.  But some of his fellow Canadian journalists disapproved of his decision to embed. 

 

 Matthew Fisher (right) with 1st Sgt. Miguel Pares (left) of the U.S. Marine Corps' 3rd Light Armoured Reconnaissance Battalion in Iraq, March 2003.

 

“I caught hell from a number of colleagues for embedding with the U.S. Marines,” he admitted.  “I was excoriated, screamed at by a fellow from the CBC about how I had no ethnics whatsoever, was a tool of American imperialism by going with a U.S. military unit into combat.”

 

Fisher tried to reason with his colleague by pointing out that the media company that he was with at the time had reporters in Baghdad, Turkey, Israel, and Jordan who “were all covering different aspects of the war.”  And Fisher explained that he was “covering one aspect of the war” and that he was providing readers with a slice of the war, and “it was an important slice” of the conflict.

 

“The Americans took 770 journalists to war with them, and I was one of two Canadian journalists embedded,” Fisher said of Operation Iraqi Freedom.  “The other fellow was a CBC Radio-Canada reporter,” who was accompanying an engineering unit far from the front lines, he noted. 

 

Fisher was embedded with a the U.S. Marine Corps. 3rd Light Armoured Reconnaissance Battalion, “and they went all over the place at the front,” he said.  “And I was with them the whole way.  So I do think I got a privileged look, and provided an aspect of the war that nobody else in Canada did.”

 

The veteran war correspondent does not see any ethical concerns about journalists embedding with the military to cover war.  But he also said that there are many other ways to cover conflicts.  "News organizations should try to cover a war in as many different ways as possible,” he said.  “To be embedded is just one arrow in your quiver.”

 

By assigning reporters to different countries, including to the other side of the conflict, a news organization can provide a more balanced picture of the conflict, Fisher repeated for added emphasis.

 

 

Sling Shot

 

While covering the 2003 war in Iraq, Fisher found himself in the middle of one of the biggest set battles of the conflict.  “Sling Shot was a code word the Marines used for what turned out to be the most dramatic battle I have been in my life,” Fisher revealed.

 

Although he had been in combat situations before in Central America, the Balkans, and in Iraq in 1991, nothing compared to what he experienced that night in Iraq in 2003.  “When I was with the Marine Corp. unit, the 3rd Light Armour Reconnaissance Unit, they were, as the Marines like to call it, the tip of the tip of the spear, which meant that they were the forward unit.”

 

The unit had advanced deep into enemy territory, heading north towards Baghdad just after dusk.  “I was in the fourth of 110 light armoured vehicles going in total blackout conditions, but with night vision goggles, travelling north at probably 50 or 60 MPH on a good highway,” he recalled.  “Suddenly there were troops in front of us in the road.”

 

The first report Fisher heard over the radio was that the men on the highway were apparently friendly.  “And then all hell broke loose,” he said.  Fisher and the Marines found themselves encircled by an Iraqi brigade in a 360 degree ambush.  And the Canadian war correspondent reckons that the Marines were outnumbered by the Iraqi forces by a ratio of at least three-to-one. 

 

As in the 1991 Iraq war, the Iraqi army, for the most part, did not offer much resistance during the 2003 conflict.  But that night in Iraq, Fisher and the Marines encountered much tougher Iraqi soldiers.  “This was the unit that fought,” he said. 

 

“Things went very badly for a while.  The firefight lasted for about 90 minutes.  And fairly far into it, tanks, Iraqi tanks began to move towards our position.  And the Marines were quite concerned about this, obviously, because the tanks could have taken out our light armoured vehicles.”

 

According to Fisher, the situation was grim.  “And over the radio, I heard the words ‘sling shot’ repeated about three times. ‘Sling Shot! Sling Shot! Sling Shot!’”

 

Over machine gun and cannon fire, Fisher could hear “the two other Marines in the back of my vehicle swearing.”  Fisher shouted over the din, “What does Sling Shot mean?!”  The Marines replied that an allied air strike on their position had just been ordered.  “That only happens when a unit is being overrun,” Fisher explained.

 

When the Sling Shot order went out, Fisher said that “every allied aircraft in Iraq at the time had to come to our defence and come to our aid and drop all the ordinance they were carrying, wherever they were directed to drop it.”

 

According to Fisher, 19 British and American fighter jets all went “supersonic” and were directed by an F18 pilot, who was on the ground as a forward air controller in a vehicle beside Fisher’s, using a laser to mark the enemy targets. 

 

“It wasn’t long after the words Sling Shot were spoken that the first of the aircraft started to drop their bombs,” he said, describing “an absolutely spectacular fireworks show” with cordite and smoke filling the air.

 

Through the tiny window in his armoured vehicle, Fisher could “see men on fire” and explosions of Iraqi ammunition.

 

Matthew Fisher in the back of a Canadian-built LAV which served as his "travelling & living quarters" while embedded with Bravo Company, 3rd LAR, U.S. Marines in Kuwait and Iraq, March-April 2003. Photo courtesy of Matthew Fisher.

 

Sling Shot saved Fisher and the Marines and smashed the Iraqi ambush.  According to Fisher, the incident is referred to in Marine Corp. literature as the Battle of 18 Northing, which is a grid co-ordinate on a map.  “My understanding is that is the biggest battle of the Iraq war, the biggest set battle.  And it was absolutely incredible,” he said.

 

The Canadian journalist was a lucky man that night, narrowly avoiding death.  “During the battle, a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) hit the side of the vehicle about a foot away from where my head was,” he said.  “I didn’t know it at the time, but in the morning when everything had cleared and we were well back from where we had been fighting, I could see there was a dent in the side