Marie Colvin put everything on the line to report the truth about war— even when there was no way out, says her friend Lyse Doucetby Lyse Doucet / January 25, 2019 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2019 issue of Prospect Magazine
It’s hard to find the exact word for it but journalists know the feeling. That ache in the gut when a major story breaks and you just have to “be there.” Being there was the trademark of the US war correspondent Marie Colvin. For her it was about bearing witness to war, always for longer than anyone else, preferably before anyone else. Her work earned her respect from colleagues and competitors alike. It also took a tremendous personal toll—and then it took her life.
Seven years after her killing by Syrian military shellfire in besieged Homs, Colvin herself has become the story. There’s a feature film based on her life starring Rosamund Pike (A Private War), a documentary through the eyes of her equally brave colleague the photojournalist Paul Conroy (Under the Wire), and a biography entitled In Extremis by her friend and fellow traveller Lindsey Hilsum.
The Marie moment comes as Syria’s tragedy, which had dominated foreign news headlines over the past seven years, is slipping from the world’s gaze. Meanwhile, journalism continues to confront an existential crisis, and correspondents on the front line are at record risk—53 were killed in the line of duty in 2018.
Colvin died at a time when war reporters were again weighing the balance of risk and reward. The bloody battles that exploded after the peaceful uprisings of the Arab Spring gave many of us pause for thought. The age-old maxim was “no story is worth dying for.” Now we added, “but there are stories worth taking risks for.” I first heard this updated mantra in January 2012 from the brilliant New York Times journalist Anthony Shadid. A month later, he was dead. A sudden asthma attack ended his life as he was travelling out of Syria.
Colvin, a correspondent for the Sunday Times, had sounded her clarion call shortly before the first stirrings of the Arab Spring. In November 2010, giving the address at the first Annual Journalists’ Commemorative Service at St Bride’s in Fleet Street, she spoke of how “we always have to ask ourselves whether the level of risk is worth the story… what is bravery and what is bravado?” It was classic Colvin, both her words and her clothes: a stylish black dress with strands of white pearls; the black patch across the eye she’d lost nearly a decade earlier in Sri Lanka. “I faced that question when I was injured,” she admitted. “One paper ran a headline saying, ‘has Marie Colvin gone too far this time?’ My answer then, and now, was that it is worth it.”
What drove the journalist hailed as the “bravest of the brave”? At a charity screening for A Private War, Rosamund Pike spoke of the “enormous responsibility” of getting her right. Colvin was hard drinking and often heartbroken; if she wasn’t lighting up another cigarette she was dodging gunfire. Pike tells me how in preparing for the role she kept listening to Colvin’s gravelly voice. Becoming Colvin meant changing the shape of her body, not to mention her state of mind. And, in striking ways, she has got Colvin—and Colvin has got her. The character still hasn’t left her.
Colvin appears herself in Chris Martin’s breathtaking documentary Under the Wire. The film takes its title from the book written by British photographer and filmmaker Paul Conroy, who was badly injured in the attack which took Colvin’s life. From Iraq to Libya to Syria, Conroy matched Colvin in his commitment to covering war—and in having a laugh and a drink. A former soldier, he had tried giving her tactical advice about when to go in, how far, and for how long. In telling the story of her last days, Conroy rises to poetry, and crumbles in pain. It’s chilling to watch. The footage is so raw, the reconstructions so real. There’s suspense, too, even though you are all too aware it will end in tragedy. Wael al-Omar, the activist who is their guide and translator, emerges as one of many unsung Syrian heroes.
At the end of A Private War, real-life Syrian women refugees tell their own stories of suffering to Colvin and Conroy. Then we see Colvin’s last interviews with CNN’s Anderson Cooper. Her compassion cuts through a crackling satellite line. In the safety of their homes and offices, her lover, friends and editors listen in. Even though they had all worried about the danger, their pride in her work is palpable. I remember listening in my flat in London to another of her last interviews on the World Service from Syria. “I watched a little baby die today,” I recall her saying, “his little tummy kept heaving until he died. This is happening over and over and over.”
That same night, Lindsey Hilsum interviewed Colvin for Channel 4 News. In her biography, she writes of how after they were off-air they spoke more like friends than professional colleagues. “Lindsey, this is the worst we’ve ever seen,” Colvin exclaimed. Hilsum’s anxious reply is: “I know, but what’s your exit strategy?” “That’s just it, I don’t have one. I’m working on it now,” she replies.
Colvin had decided to go straight back to Homs after an earlier attack didn’t materialise. Conroy’s film makes it painfully clear he felt it wasn’t the right decision to return, but he didn’t want Colvin going it alone. There’s another cruel twist. In sounding the alarm in interviews via satellite telephone, Colvin may have betrayed their location to the Syrian military who her family believe deliberately targeted her.
Hilsum recalls her last supper with Colvin in Beirut, just before Colvin was smuggled into Syria. “It’s beyond my threshold of danger,” Hilsum admits. Colvin has a matter-of-fact reply. “Anyway, it’s what we do.” This is how Colvin summarised “what we do”: “What I write about is humanity in extremis, pushed to the unendurable, and that it is important to tell people what really happens in wars.”
In Extremis fills in the blanks left by a documentary mainly focused on her last days, and a feature film that shows her turbulent life in fast-forward. The biopic hurtles from one ill-fated relationship to the next, from bouts of drinking to a breakdown, to one warzone after another, every scene of suffering worse than the last. Colvin’s killing resonated with many people. For a year Hilsum found herself unable to travel, living with what she called “Marie’s ghost.”
When writing this biography, Hilsum tells me, she was worried about whether she was too close to the story. “Would I be able to write it with both love and a critical eye, honest and unflinching, but still aware of the sensibilities of those who loved her?” In the interests of full disclosure, Hilsum and I regard each other as “journalistic twins.” We’re the same age and started becoming journalists at the same time, on opposite sides of Africa, freelancing for the BBC. Hilsum describes herself as being in Colvin’s “outer, not inner circle.”
So was I. Colvin and I lived in adjacent neighbourhoods in Jerusalem during the 1990s when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rarely left the headlines. We covered the same stories but didn’t always run in the same social circles. Later we met everywhere from Kabul to Cairo. Our last time together was in the Egyptian capital, at the height of the protests of 2011 which ended President Hosni Mubarak’s rule. We shared contacts, as we always did, and she shared painful details of being betrayed by her boyfriend of the time.
Hilsum finds out everything she needs to know, and some things she didn’t want to. She had exclusive access to 300 diaries and notebooks, and interviews more than 100 friends, family members and colleagues. The first heart-stopping moment is opening the diary of the 13-year-old girl growing up in a middle-class Catholic family on Long Island, New York. While the diaries reveal typical teenage preoccupations with clothes and boys, there are also the inklings of the rebellious spirit that would mark Colvin all her life. Hilsum hears from Colvin’s family about childhood games like “dead man’s branch,” where the little Colvins would climb out on branches to see who would retreat first—“invariably it was Marie who pushed out the furthest.” Even her first sexual experience was daring. Colvin would “shimmy down the tree outside her bedroom window” to spend the night with her first boyfriend Chris, and end up being caught in bed by her furious father.
The moment which made up her mind about journalism was at Yale, on a course taught by Pulitzer Prize winner John Hersey. He sparked her desire to use “the experience of individuals to reveal the human impact of political and military decisions.” A press junket to Libya transformed her from “anonymous news agency reporter to the brave woman who had interviewed Muammar ‘mad dog’ Gaddafi as American warplanes revved their engines on the tarmac.” From there it’s another step to the Sunday Times and Beirut.
The following decades see Colvin make her name while her personal life unravels—described by Hilsum as “stably unstable.” Eventually, Colvin has to accept she must deal with her PTSD. She had lived with bad dreams for years. But after she lost her eye in Sri Lanka from a soldier’s grenade, a recurrent nightmare of the attack was “like a horror film stuck on a loop.” But even that near-death experience doesn’t impel Colvin to hang up her flak jacket. She worries about younger competitors, and living up to her own “brand of danger.”
Her reports, unlike those of some dare-devil reporters, did sometimes have real impact. Her eyewitness account from the Palestinian refugee camp Bourj al-Barajneh in southern Beirut in 1987 helped bring an end to the siege.
Time and again Colvin believed that her “being there” would help the people whose story she wanted to tell. But her daring was fuelled by other factors: her own sense of self and her editors’ creation of the Marie myth. Being a woman added to her allure. But Colvin, like her inspiration Martha Gellhorn, pushed back against seeing journalism through the lens of gender.
Hilsum, and other female correspondents, have said they hope this Marie moment won’t end up unduly glamourising women who report on war. They need not worry. This book is not a herogram to a heroine. Hilsum writes of Colvin’s struggle to meet deadlines and her battle to reconcile her desire for independence with her longing to settle down. She was not, to use the cliché, “fearless.” (The Pike film begins with Colvin’s own voice: “Fear comes later, when it’s all over.”) Still, Hilsum hopes the book does convey Marie’s sense of humour—“parts of my book are funny, because Marie was funny,” she tells me.
Colvin’s life offers insight into questions journalists ask themselves. Can I balance a stable personal life with such an unpredictable profession? Will war leave me when I leave it? Do we ever make a difference? And there are the questions non-journalists ask of us. Weren’t you scared? What was it like? Why do you go to places like that?
At a screening of the documentary at the Frontline Club, Conroy was asked whether that fatal trip to Homs was worth it. He gave the answer most war correspondents would give: “Did it do anything? I hope so. Was it in vain? I don’t think it was in vain. Would I rather not lose Marie? Of course. I would do anything to change it. But you’ve got to believe it’s worth it, otherwise you don’t do it.” When Colvin was killed trying to awaken the world to Syria’s plight, the UN put the number of Syrian lives lost in the war at 9,000. Now that toll is estimated at more than half a million.
Reporting doesn’t stop wars. But it does raise questions, and it calls on us to confront our shared humanity. And sometimes it unearths important truths that also resonate with the public. In October, a shocking photograph of an emaciated seven-year-old Yemeni girl called Amal, taken by New York Times photographer Tyler Hicks, was displayed in the US Senate during a vote to end the sale of US weapons to Saudi Arabia. If Colvin was alive today, she’d be doing whatever she could to get to Yemen. For better or worse, “It’s what we do.”
In Extremis: The Life of War Correspondent Marie Colvin by Lindsey Hilsum is published by Chatto & Windus, £20
A Private War is directed by Matthew Heineman
Under the Wire is directed by Chris Martin