[Marxism] Review of Marie Colvin books and films

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Dec 8 06:37:22 MST 2018

NY Review of Books, DECEMBER 20, 2018 ISSUE
‘It’s What We Do’
by Ed Vulliamy

In Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie Colvin
by Lindsey Hilsum
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 378 pp., $28.00

A Private War: Marie Colvin and Other Tales of Heroes, Scoundrels, and 
by Marie Brenner
Simon and Schuster, 336 pp., $16.00 (paper)

A Private War
a film directed by Matthew Heineman

Under the Wire: Marie Colvin’s Final Assignment
by Paul Conroy
London: Quercus, 336 pp., £20.00; £9.99 (paper)

Under the Wire
a documentary film directed by Chris Martin

La Mort est ma servante: Lettre à un ami assassiné, Syrie 2005–2013 
[Death Is My Servant: Letter to a Murdered Friend: Syria, 2005–2013]
by Jean-Pierre Perrin
Paris: Fayard, 336 pp., E19.00

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.”

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