‘It’s What We Do’

A Private War

a film directed by Matthew Heineman

Under the Wire

a documentary film directed by Chris Martin
Don McCullin/Contact Press Images
Marie Colvin, London, 2005

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.