“Bravery is not being afraid to be afraid.”
“Journalists covering combat shoulder great responsibilities and face difficult choices. Sometimes they pay the ultimate price.”
It’s time to start a new LDW tradition in which we spend the occasional moment recognizing some of history’s great troublemakers – people who inflicted the Earth with their own brand of burning bush with the intention of shaking things up, speaking (or acting) out, and making the world a better place in some way or another.
This week we’re going to take a look at the life of journalist and fearless war correspondent Marie Colvin, who was killed in 2012 while reporting on the Siege of Homs in Syria.
Beyond the Borders of Bravery
Colvin spent roughly three decades working in various hells on Earth. She reported on conflicts in Kosovo, Chechnya, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Libya, East Timor, Sri Lanka (where she lost her eye to shrapnel), and – ultimately – Homs, where it appears she was intentionally targeted by Assad artillery as part of what she called the worst bombardment she had ever witnessed (which is really saying something).
Right up to the end, Colvin’s life was checkered with stories and experiences that seem like they’re drawn straight out of the most adventurous of fiction. She was the first to interview Gaddafi after Operation El Dorado Canyon (the 1986 air bombing campaign by the U.S. against Libya). She saved the lives of some fifteen-hundred women and children who were under attack by Indonesian forces in East Timor when she refused to abandon them, electing instead to stay attached to a UN force and share the plight of the besieged with the outside world, which led to their relief after four days. She was seriously injured by an attacker during the Sri Lankan Civil War (this was the incident that robbed her of an eye), yet still managed to submit her report by deadline. This was after hiking 30 miles through the jungle to evade government troops who were out to prevent foreign journalists from covering the humanitarian disaster in the Tamil region. She was honored with a slew of awards, including Journalist of the Year, Foreign Reporter of the Year, and Courage in Journalism. I could go on, but I suppose you get the picture.
As I’ve already mentioned, Colvin’s fantastic story came to an end in Homs. The Syrian government had been doing its damnedest to keep foreign journalists out of the country, so she crossed the border without permission via motorcycle. Then shortly after delivering her final broadcast (in which she described the indiscriminate sniper attacks and shelling directed by Syrian forces against civilians, and shared horrifying footage of a toddler that had been killed by sniper fire), Colvin along with most of her team was killed in an artillery blast.
A few weeks ago, her family filed suit against the Syrian government claiming they have proof that Colvin had been intentionally assassinated through extrajudicial channels.
The Dangers of Telling the Truth
Journalism, when performed correctly, is no mere telling of the news. A truly great journalist confronts us with the truth, often a truth that is hidden or painful to recognize. This might be most accurate in the case of the war correspondent.
War is one of the most complex and horrible endeavors that our species can undertake, and for the vast majority of us its realities will remain abstract – far away and out of mind. The consequences and sacrifices of war are equally nebulous – a price to be paid by some cipher population, whether it be the soldiers we ignore or foreign populations we shrug off. Their blood, their limbs, their loved ones, their mental security, their lives – we tacitly agree – are part of the cost of being human in a violent world. A cost we would rather not pay ourselves.
When Colvin showed that toddler die in her last broadcast, Anderson Cooper brought up the fact that many viewers would think that she had gone too far. Her response – and I’m paraphrasing here – was that people needed to know, needed to see that the price was being paid to the limit, needed to witness something that they could not ignore, something that would bring reality from abstraction. As she explained in a speech she once delivered:
“We go to remote war zones to report what is happening. The public have a right to know what our government, and our armed forces, are doing in our name. Our mission is to speak the truth to power. We send home that first rough draft of history. We can and do make a difference in exposing the horrors of war and especially the atrocities that befall civilians.”
This type of work puts one at not just emotional and social hazard (Colvin was afflicted with PTSD following her experiences in Sri Lanka, and the wider public generally hates to be confronted with bloody realities), but as Colvin proved it comes with a vital risk. In the same speech I quoted above she described how one of her colleagues lost his legs to a mine. And ultimately she and her support staff were wiped out of existence for revealing truths that the Syrian government didn’t want the world to know.
Marie Colvin took personal responsibility for the human race. She knew that there was work to be done that no one else would or could do. She sought to illuminate the deepest, darkest parts of experience, to probe places that would hurt her audience so that they in turn would realize the injury that was being inflicted on others. She dared to cross borders between safety and jeopardy, to say personal security was selfish in the face of the suffering of those who were far away. She held a lens to those faces, and showed us a mirror. She worked to prove that all are our family and that we are the family of all, regardless of language or location or custom. And she felt that this was a responsibility that was worth the price of death – a price that she paid.
Her willingness to pay that price, to forward some of the cost to we who were safe at home, to hold up the mirror – all of these things and more make Marie Colvin a person worthy of our esteem, and our gratitude.
In war there are rarely answers, and the search for them inevitably leads only to more questions. I hope that her family gets the answers they need. And I hope that in a world absent of Marie Colvin, others will step up to ask the important questions.