In 2003 the Frontline Club was established in the Paddington quarter of London by war reporters from the disbanded Frontline Television News, in pursuit of what one of its founders, Vaughan Smith, called “eating, drinking and thinking”; its members are mostly a band of Ancient Mariners, with tales of the world’s battlefields. In a frame by the door are photographs of eight reporters killed while working for Frontline. Above are two more slain since the club’s establishment—one wearing the eyepatch that became her hallmark: Marie Colvin. I glance back at the gaze through her good eye whenever I reach the table at which Marie and I had our last conversation in early 2012. Sitting with a glass of wine, she waved me over; we worked for competing publications—she for The Sunday Times, I for The Observer (Sunday cousin to The Guardian)—so our acquaintance was a strange one, but we chatted amicably. “You got to go to Syria,” she said.
I pleaded reluctance. “C’mon,” she urged, “thousands of civilians slaughtered by the regime.” I recalled my days of betting on horses, and how you had to know when your luck had run out, as if Marie needed reminding. She’d lost the sight in her left eye to shrapnel and survived. “Bah,” she scoffed, “it’s what we do”—Marie’s motto. I sang her the Eagles line “Take it to the limit”; she laughed, and we changed the subject to debate whether we’d pay to hear the Eagles these days. I went off to report on the drug war in Mexico—and saw the Eagles. But Marie never got the chance: she took it to the limit one more time, and within weeks of our aperitif she was dead.
On February 22, 2012, Colvin and the French photographer Rémi Ochlik were killed by the Syrian army. Lindsey Hilsum saw Marie much closer to the end than I did: her book In Extremis opens in Beirut, where she and other reporters assess the risks of crossing into Baba Amr, a battered enclave of the Syrian city of Homs, not with regime escorts but with rebels from the Free Syrian Army (FSA). For Hilsum and others, “this was beyond our danger threshold, but Marie shrugged. ‘Anyway, it’s what we do.’” She and the photographer Paul Conroy entered Baba Amr; the following Sunday, Hilsum read Marie’s dispatch from a cellar and field clinic, and heard that she was safely out. But then an e-mail arrived from Marie informing Hilsum that she “had returned to Baba Amr. I was angry with her. Why take the risk a second time?” It’s a question that propels the book.
With a flurry of books and films telling her story, Marie Colvin has become probably the most famous reporter in the world. Hilsum’s volume is foremost among these, along with a collection of Colvin’s journalism published soon after her death.* Hilsum writes with admiration and compassionate understanding of her colleague, and of their collegial friendship that gets close to what we can, without sentiment, call love.
Marie was born on Long Island to a middle-class family described by her mother, Rosemarie, as “lace curtain Irish”—Catholic, politically radical, but socially conservative. Marie’s father, Bill, taught English; Hilsum describes his daughter’s devastation at his death from cancer after she started at Yale, where she “struggled to find meaning through her grief.”
Her role model was the war reporter Martha Gellhorn, whose bravery and writing excelled in what was regarded as very much a man’s world. Colvin joined the UPI in New Jersey, then moved to Washington before becoming the agency’s bureau chief in Paris. The Sunday Times lured her to London in 1986, assigning her to the Middle East. What singled Marie out from the “nomadic family of journalists” covering the region were her outrageous bravery in reaching the Palestinian refugee camp of Bourj al-Barajneh, in the suburbs of Beirut, in 1987, while it was under siege by Hezbollah, and the interviews she got with the PLO leader Yasser Arafat and the Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, to whom she secured unrivaled access.
Marie and I both covered the Iraq war in 1991. While most correspondents focused on Kurdistan, we headed, separately, for al-Basra to report on the ravages of Saddam Hussein’s repression of a Shiite uprising. Colvin avoided the carnage in Bosnia—oddly, perhaps, given her emphasis on reporting civilian suffering—but threw herself into its sequel in Kosovo. She was invariably the first reporter in and the last one out: from a UN compound in East Timor in 1999 sheltering refugees who had fled Indonesian militias, or from Chechnya that same year, on foot through snowbound mountains while “the planes, evil machines…trailed thunder, dropping bombs.” “Marie was now famous,” writes Hilsum. “Other reporters dodged bullets…but to escape bombardment by climbing the Caucasus Mountains in mid-winter, risking freezing to death, was unprecedented. The fact that Marie was a woman just added to her allure.”
By April 2001, Marie was encamped with the Tamil Tigers, but while crossing the lines out she was ambushed by the Sri Lankan army and hit by shrapnel: “If I didn’t yell now, they would stumble on me and shoot…. [I] stood straight up, hands in the air. Blood poured from my face.” She would never again see through her left eye.
Then came the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003—a “Dreyfus moment,” I thought, that demanded taking sides—and an awkward situation working in competition with (and on the opposite side from) Marie ended with her doing me an unexpected favor.
My then editor at The Observer supported the invasion, as did Marie’s editor at The Sunday Times, John Witherow, as did Marie. I viscerally opposed it. Her situation was simpler than mine. Late in 2002, the former head of the Soviet desk at the CIA, Mel Goodman, told me that “intelligence” on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction—the casus belli—was fabricated; an alliance source, the Iraqi dissident Ahmed Chalabi, was making it up. Months later in Baghdad, working on a story about civilian casualties during the invasion, I was assigned, unwillingly, to interview Chalabi. At his headquarters in the Hunting Club, the first person I saw was Marie. “Hey! What are you doing here?” “I’m staying here,” she replied. “What, as in staying?” We had an argument, about the invasion and Chalabi, and then I had an idea: “Marie, you don’t want The Observer interviewing your contact—could you sabotage my request?” “With pleasure,” she replied, having a word with Chalabi that foiled the plan. I bought her a thank-you drink.
Journalists will devour Hilsum’s book, but will others? They should: with Marie’s story, Hilsum opens doors through which many would not otherwise peep. But the book also revels in “the Yale celebrity set Marie moved in” and soirées in London lambent with “aristocrats, artists, filmmakers, politicians, poets.” People tend to distrust reporters, and Marie’s social whirl might give the wrong impression, suggesting that we inhabit high society and are devoid of friends who earn bad pay for jobs they dislike.
There’s an Episcopalian church in London, St. Brides, with a traditional connection to the media, where many of us gathered one evening in 2010 to commemorate those killed while reporting. It was an occasion featuring prominent speakers and seemed to have little connection to “what we do” on the ground, until the author of that dictum took the lectern. Marie said, “We always have to ask ourselves whether the level of risk is worth the story…. What is bravery, and what is bravado?”
What indeed, and on which side of that line was Marie? Her life, writes Hilsum, consisted of “one day tramping through the snow…the next dressing up in a designer suit and hobnobbing with film stars. Which was more real?” She addresses Marie’s state of mind: after a conference in Cancún, at which Marie got drunk, her editors dropped her off at the airport; they “thought she was fine…. But she wasn’t fine. She was drifting out of reach.” Marie’s sister Cathleen tried to reach her: “‘She said she couldn’t get out of bed…. She was suicidal and needed help.’” Marie drafted a letter to Witherow: “I’ve been having anxiety attacks that result in a sort of paralysing depression.”
Most war correspondents suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder; I prefer the term “shell shock.” It takes one to know one, and Marie was clearly suffering from shell shock. She was also unhappy with her employer. “Other correspondents,” Hilsum writes,
worried that her judgment was flawed and she was being exploited for the sake of competition—her photo byline, complete with eye patch, had become not just her trademark but the paper’s, as if risk taking were in itself evidence of good reporting.
She describes a sense that Marie’s “public persona as a brave war correspondent was out of kilter with the insecurity she felt inside. Her editors asked too much of her, she thought.”
Marie consulted lawyers to draft a formal complaint to Witherow about “bullying,” but never sent it; the foreign editor swore at her and “demanded the impossible,” writes Hilsum. The paper kept sending Marie back to war, where she admittedly wanted to be. After a disappointment in love, writes Hilsum, “what a relief it was to return to Afghanistan.” Every war reporter knows a variation of that feeling, but it’s a bad place to be.
In early 2012 Marie applied for a Syrian visa, but the process was slow. Reporters had crossed illegally into Baba Amr, and where others dared tread, Marie must too. Another Sunday Times writer and Paul Conroy had, writes Hilsum, “pulled back because of the danger. Paul was willing to try again.” In Under the Wire Conroy tells the story of the madness and pity of his final misadventure with Colvin. Her speech to the FSA’s commander when he warns of the dangers is a manifesto: “‘Commander,’ she said…. ‘The world desperately needs to see what is happening inside Baba Amr…we can show the world, we can bear witness.’” Once on their way, “Marie was now truly flying.” They made it through a tunnel—a storm drain—into the enclave. “‘Paul,’ she said…‘we’ve done very weird stuff over the years but this, this has got to take the biscuit. I can’t think of anything else so bizarre and dangerous but now we’ve made it, it’s so much fun.’”
Marie and Conroy filed, and departed Baba Amr—but then returned. Conroy defied an inner voice of warning for the first time in his career, after Marie dared him: if he stayed behind, she would go alone. Once they arrived, even the editors urged them to leave and they prepared to do so, but shelling resumed; there was confusion about whether to run for open ground. Marie and Ochlik made for the door as a direct strike hit the building.
Conroy, who was wounded in the leg, described Colvin’s death most cogently to the US attorney’s office in Washington, D.C., where her sister Cathleen filed suit against the Syrian government in March 2018:
I got up and took several steps towards the entrance of the building before my leg gave way and I collapsed over some rubble. I landed on the ground next to Marie. Her head was buried in concrete and her feet were buried in rubble. I put my hand on her chest but there was no movement.
The Colvin family suit claims extrajudicial killing, and in his book Conroy draws on his experience as a former soldier: “They’re bracketing us. Bracketing is a military tactic used by artillery units to ensure that shells hit their intended target…. This had been my job in the army…these guys knew exactly what they were doing.”
Conroy describes his own terrifying escape. In a documentary based on his book, he and Edith Bouvier of Le Figaro and Radio France International, who had also gone to Baba Amr, recall hellish claustrophobia in the bombed building, Colvin’s and Ochlik’s deaths, and their own survival. Presenting the film this October during a festival that accompanies the Prix Bayeux awards—the Oscars of war reporting, held annually in Normandy—Conroy received a standing ovation, and said that during his perilous escape back through the tunnel, it was as though “I had Marie on my shoulder.”
Marie Brenner’s book should not eclipse Hilsum’s, but it might—a Hollywood biopic is based on it. Like the film, it is entitled A Private War; the cover shows Rosamund Pike as Marie. The film is well crafted, almost too affecting—big on “bearing witness” and alcohol, low on Marie’s complexities and humor. Brenner’s book is actually a collection of Vanity Fair articles, but only thirty-one out of 334 pages (plus five in the introduction) are about Marie. She is more concerned with the modus vivendi of war reporting than its purpose: Colvin “had spent months sleeping on floors in the besieged city of Misrata, living on ‘the war zone diet’—Pringles, tuna, granola bars, and water…. ‘What did you live on?’ I asked Paul Conroy. ‘Pringles, water, and cigarettes.’” La Perla underwear, which Marie apparently wore into combat zones, is mentioned repeatedly.
So we reach a weird place where the stories Colvin was reporting risk submersion beneath her own. It’s laudable that her death has inspired people beyond those who had read her reportage. On BBC Radio, Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of Britain, asked children who their heroes were. One girl named Tully answered, “The journalist Marie Colvin who was killed in Syria”—a wonderful reply, albeit disquieting for Tully’s parents. Yet the situation raises an issue: Marie was killed in Syria, but so were Kenji Goto, James Foley, and Steve Sotloff, all by ISIS. Other reporters have been recently assassinated: Javier Valdez in Sinaloa and Miroslava Breach in Chihuahua (along with scores of other Mexican journalists); Daphne Caruana Galizia, Ján Kuciak, and Viktoria Marinova in Malta, Slovakia, and Bulgaria. The Ecuadorans Javier Ortega and Paúl Rivas and their driver Efraín Segarra were killed by dissidents from Colombia’s FARC. Also murdered were the Russian Anna Politovskaya and the Saudi Jamal Khashoggi, whose deaths rightfully drew mainstream attention. A list of journalists killed in the past few years could fill this article.
As I prepared to write this piece and walk over these splinters, Vaughan Smith told me, “Marie’s an idol, and this profession needs idols.” He’s right, insofar as Marie’s death draws attention to both her and her colleagues who were killed, and why they were. If the idol overshadows others, something else is happening.
Rémi Ochlik was twenty-eight and had won a World Press Photo award just before he was killed with Marie, but he has become a footnote. His story may not be as appealing as Marie’s, but there’s also an Anglophone bias here—a notion that the news is in English. Anglophone journalism may not know, for instance, Jean-Pierre Perrin of Libération, whose reporting from the Iran–Iraq War and Afghanistan was expert and bold. Perrin was there too in Baba Amr with Colvin. His marvelous book La Mort est ma servante: Lettre à un ami assassiné, Syrie 2005–2013 (a title taken from T.E. Lawrence) describes the journey through the tunnel with Colvin. He writes poetically about Syrian army deserters who refused to fire on demonstrators and joined the rebels, and records moving testimony from citizens of what he calls “un quartier contre une armée”—a neighborhood against an army.
Perrin found “the legend” of Marie “intimidating” at first, but thought Conroy was “amicable, even kind.” He joked that with their helmets, armor, and satellite phones, they made him “feel like an amateur, in my K-way [anorak], sneakers and bags full of not much. To travel light, I had not even brought a computer.” But in Conroy’s book, Perrin is depicted not as a colleague but as a buffoon, because of his age—sixty—and physique: “The Frenchman…slightly lumbering in his movements”; “because of his age and size, J-P was no quicker when it came to putting on his boots.” There’s endless sniggering about how Perrin accepted an offer to have his trousers cleaned during one stop, but had to leave in a hurry and borrow rebel Free Syrian Army wear—puerile at best, or just mean.
In the main, rival reporters get on collegially, and sometimes have close friendships forged in extremis, as Conroy’s dedication to Marie testifies. But they can be pointlessly competitive too, even in places like Baba Amr. As Conroy and Colvin prepared to leave a second time, Edith Bouvier, Javier Espinosa of El Mundo, Ochlik, and another French photographer, William Daniels, arrived. “Marie immediately saw them as opposition, as intruders on her story,” writes Conroy. “Personally, my heart sank. I knew we were staying…. ‘Paul, we gotta get to the field clinic in the morning, before the French,’ she said.” In Hilsum’s account, Marie wrote to London: “A bunch of Euro journalists have piled in!… I refuse to be beaten by the French!” “‘Do you still want to leave now the Eurotrash are here?’ Marie asked Paul.” Marie’s remarkable oeuvre—and why her editors “exploited” her—comes as much from her desire not to be “beaten” as it does from courage and talent. But “beaten” by what? Something within herself had to be defeated, as Hilsum’s subtle portrait makes clear. No need to pretend it was all virtue and “bearing witness”: “take it to the limit” was Marie’s nature, and it worked, until it didn’t.
Hilsum’s writing on Colvin inevitably raises important questions about journalism. In Kosovo, Marie developed a theme that had infused our reporting in Bosnia and preoccupied those of us who chose to testify at war crimes tribunals: the separation of objectivity from neutrality—the one fact-specific, the other moral. Hilsum cites an interview Marie gave to the Australian journalist Denise Leith: “‘When you’re physically uncovering graves in Kosovo, I don’t think there are two sides to the story,’ she said. ‘To me there is a right and a wrong, a morality, and if I don’t report that, I don’t see the reason for being there.’” That principle, and Marie’s determination to focus on civilian victims of war rather than military strategy, drove her work at its best. As the photographer Tom Stoddart said of that early assignment in Bourj al-Barajneh, “She knew the story was not about fighting, nor about politics…but about women being murdered.”
Marie’s last dispatch is inevitably poignant. It begins: “They call it the widow’s basement,” full of mostly women and children, many of whom had lost their menfolk. Conroy and Marie watched a baby die in agony. “Marie came to my side,” he writes. “She looked harrowed and drained…. ‘Come on, you’ve seen this before. Don’t let it get to you…. We have to show this to the world, we will make a difference.’”
That’s Marie all right, but is she right? These books and films insist that she is, that Marie did not die in vain. I can only speak for myself: in the summer of 1992, it was my accursed honor to reveal, along with London’s Independent Television News, the existence of concentration camps in Bosnia—a picture of one emaciated prisoner behind barbed wire became a famous image of the war—and to accompany convoys of “ethnically cleansed” deportees along a terrifying mountain road. Politicians huffed and puffed, yet nothing happened for three bloody years until the massacre of eight thousand at Srebrenica in 1995. Some great journalism by very good reporters made no difference at all. This is not to say that we should stop reporting atrocities—quite the reverse. But after Marie died in Homs, it fell horribly; then Aleppo did—next will probably be Idlib.
Let’s not flatter ourselves. Let’s do our work. I thought there were two kinds of war reporters: those like me who hate war—that’s why we write about it—and those who get a kick out of war, a sense of purpose at best, a thrill at worst. Reading Hilsum, one realizes that Marie fell into both camps or neither, a camp of her own. “Why do I cover wars?” she wrote from Sri Lanka. “It is a difficult question to answer. 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 that it is important to tell people what really happens in wars—declared and undeclared.”