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In Extremis

In Extremis

The life of war correspondent Marie Colvin

Review

The Super Bowl professional football championship is the single biggest sporting event in America. The television audience is enormous – some 100 million people watched the game this year – allowing the network to charge corporations $10 million a minute to air their advertisements. These ads famously try to convince the captive audience, through wit or sentimentality, to buy the beer or the car, the food or the skin cream, for sale.

This year, one of those ads broke the mould. The Washington Post paid for a sober one-minute advertisement that wasn’t selling anything. Instead, it extolled the virtue of a free press – in general, not just in relation to the iconic newspaper of the American capital.

That is how treacherous the mood has become in the United States. The president calls journalists “enemies of the people” and refers to any critical reporting as “fake news”. Trump’s vicious attacks are eroding confidence in the press, though its freedom is enshrined in the Constitution. And his remarks are cited by authoritarian leaders – such as Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and Hun Sen of Cambodia – who are attempting to solidify their power by eliminating an independent media.

So the Washington Post ad was a clear proclamation that the press refused to be bullied. Narrating over clips from World War II through to the civil rights marches and to the moon landing, actor Tom Hanks reminds the audience, “When we go to war, when we exercise our rights or when our nation is threatened, there is someone to gather the facts, to bring you the story no matter the cost.”

At that moment, photographs of three journalists slowly pass across the screen. All three have been murdered for reporting the truth. Their very lives have been the “cost” of bringing their stories to the public.

One reporter has sleek golden hair and wears a black eye patch. She looked gamely into the camera with a half-smile, clearly a figure with pizzazz. She is Marie Colvin, the American war correspondent who was murdered by Syrian soldiers on orders from the government of Bashar al-Assad. In this image she was reporting from the besieged city of Homs, her pieces showing conclusively that government soldiers were systematically attacking civilians. By the Syrian government’s calculation, Colvin had to be silenced. In killing her, Assad’s army broke the international rules of war.

But Colvin is much more than a martyr. She is a striking symbol of the urgency and seriousness needed at this perilous moment to protect a society’s right to an independent press. Colvin’s articles dissected complicated problems and their consequences in places and circumstances where few other reporters ventured. Her life epitomised the unbearable hazards a correspondent often faces and the trauma and pain that spills over to their personal lives. Colvin’s life and work are both worth remembering – not only for her contribution to journalism, but as a rebuttal to the toxic slurs uttered and illegal arrests made to quiet the free press.

In Extremis tells Colvin’s fully lived story. This honest, often unsparing biography is written by Lindsey Hilsum, a friend and colleague, who reveals how such a complicated, courageous woman became one of the world’s best war correspondents, and one of the most damaged.

Hilsum uses Colvin’s diaries and letters to show how this Yale-educated American working for London’s Sunday Times trained herself to accept the high cost of covering wars, to risk her life repeatedly and to absorb the emotional impact of all that senseless inhumanity in order to write articles that went beyond the stilted press releases and showed the damning truth.

Colvin grew to look the part. Her eye patch came after she lost an eye reporting on starvation in embattled Sri Lanka. Her elegance, even in the grotty precincts of combat, spoke to her refusal to be less than human even as the sacrifices of her profession upended her personal life. And her articles – above all, her articles – underline her singular, almost spiritual belief that her role was to write about the civilian victims of brutal wars. In her last interview, hours before she was murdered, she said that she had just witnessed a baby die.

Colvin came of age at a time when women had broken through many social barriers and were welcomed on foreign news staffs and assigned some of the roughest stories. The Middle East was her sweet spot. She went from Basra, Iraq, to Beirut, Lebanon, in her first month at The Sunday Times. She conducted exclusive interviews with Libyan leader Muamar al-Gathafi and Yasser Arafat of the Palestinian Liberation Organization.

Colvin established her own style of reportage, staying on the front lines longer than others, often ignoring the hardware of war to focus on the bloody consequences for civilians caught in crossfire and targeted attacks. This is from her article datelined Beirut, 5 April 1987: “She lay where she had fallen, face down on the dirt path leading out of Bourj el Baranjneh. Haji Achmed Ali, 22, crumpled as the snipers’ bullets hit her in the face and stomach. She had tried to cross the no man’s land between the Palestinian camp and the Amal militiamen besieging it to buy food for her family.” Only a reporter risking the same fate could have written that powerful paragraph.

Colvin went on to the muddy killing fields of Bosnia. She made news herself in East Timor, where she refused to heed official warnings and stayed with refugees in a United Nations camp while Indonesian militia moved in to kill them. Her articles and interviews, along with those of two other women reporters who stayed, helped lift the siege.

Colvin was on a tear. She went next to the frozen frontlines of Chechnya, and then to Sri Lanka. The rebel Tamil Tigers had been fighting for over a decade to establish a separate homeland from the dominant Buddhist Sri Lankans. Colvin was promised an exclusive interview with the rebel leader and a first-hand account of the children starving because of boycotts in the war.

By now she was openly arguing with her editors when they challenged the wisdom of her crossing into yet another risky rebel territory. She would have none of it. But in Sri Lanka the biggest story she wrote was how she lost her eye in crossfire. “Why do I cover wars?” she wrote afterwards. “I did not set out to be a war correspondent. It has always seemed to me that what I write about is humanity in extremis, pushed to the unendurable, and it is important to tell people what really happens in wars – declared and undeclared.”

She railed against the routine praise for her as a woman war correspondent. Men were known simply as war correspondents. To her mind, being female should make no difference.

That may be true, but she was learning that as a woman she would suffer differently from her male colleagues. Underneath the boldness, she was cracking. Her private life was a near-shambles. Both her marriages failed as her husbands complained she was away too often and unable to be monogamous. Due to these separations, she lost the chance to have the children she thought she wanted. She was beginning to tally up the price of being a woman in her field.

Like many war correspondents, Colvin suffered severe post-traumatic stress disorder after years of witnessing carnage on battlefields, of feeling fear and adrenaline mount as she waited for the next round of attacks. After losing her eye in Sri Lanka, she nearly became catatonic. She suffered waking nightmares. She was housebound, prone to shaking. She drank far too much and was endlessly questioning whether it was all worth it.

Fortunately, her employers recognised her distress and eventually convinced her to check into a clinic. Hilsum, a respected foreign correspondent herself, carefully dissects how Colvin resisted coddling but finally accepted treatment to lift her from profound depression and show her how to cope with those memories that would never disappear.

Several years later, Colvin addressed the general predicament of her tribe. “We always have to ask ourselves whether the level of risk is worth the story. What is bravery, and what is bravado?”

Colvin found her answer in an idealised version of Martha Gelhorn, the rare woman who succeeded as a World War II–era war correspondent – and came with more than a whiff of glamour, as a former wife of Ernest Hemingway.

At first glance, Gelhorn is an odd choice as a role model. She was working in a time when women weren’t allowed near most battlefields. Women didn’t become combat reporters in numbers until the Vietnam War. But Gelhorn made her reputation covering what she called the face of war, the brutal images that “are the strongest argument against war”. Gelhorn was a fellow spirit from another era – who also watched her personal life fall apart in the pursuit of a “crusade on behalf of those without a voice in society”.

When Syrian intelligence finally pinpointed Colvin’s hiding place in Homs in 2012 and targeted her and her colleagues, she had negotiated some of her challenges and was determined to carry on her work.

Wa’el al-Omar, her guide in Homs, was one of the last people to see her alive. “I knew her for a short period, but it was a time of life or death,” he said. “She dreamed of being a voice for the weak, and of a place where war doesn’t affect civilians. She wasn’t childish or naïve, but she was idealistic. She was a dreamer.”

What better moment than now to appreciate everything required to write those articles from war, to translate those intense moments of humanity in extremis? This remarkable and sensitive biography is a rebuttal to every bully or coward who accuses a journalist like Colvin of being an “enemy of the people”, to every frightened politician who denounces independent journalism as “fake news”.

Last year alone, sixty-three journalists were killed doing their jobs around the world; half of them were deliberately targeted, according to Reporters Without Borders. For the first time, the United States was listed as one of the five most dangerous countries to be a journalist, joining India and Mexico, where reporters were also killed in rampages. A.G. Sulzberger, the publisher of The New York Times, asked Trump in person this year to stop his anti-press ravings. The effects, he said “are being felt all over the world, including [by] folks who are literally putting their lives on the line to report the truth”.

The president made no such commitment.

This year, an American court found the Syrian government guilty of murdering Colvin by targeted shelling – a reminder that the messenger relaying these truths often suffers as much as the soldier fighting the wars.

Elizabeth Becker

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This is a review from Australian Foreign Affairs 6: Our Sphere of Influence. To read the full issue subscribe or buy the issue.