We share an uncomfortable proximity in time with events that, by their sheer horror, feel as though they ought to have occurred in a distant era, when burnt corpses and gang rapes and the systematic murder of thousands of civilians would not have been surprising. Two-thousand years feels like a comfortable remove; we can look to the ancients and judge their savagery without bathing in its taint.
War reporting is uniquely disturbing: like a car wreck, you don’t want to see, but you can’t look away. I have found myself powerfully drawn to Marie Colvin’s reporting from conflict zones the globe, especially the war in Kosovo, and on a recent Sunday afternoon I sank into her collected articles, “On the Front Line,” published posthumously.
Colvin was killed in Homs, Syria, in 2012. I first learned of her story through a Vanity Fair feature that left me reeling; here was a woman who simultaneously wore an eye patch and red lace undergarments, who ventured into war zones again and again, each time at great personal risk, and whose writing is a captivating mix of intensely personal observations and dispassioned, professional reporting. Quite simply, I couldn’t put “On the Front Line” down.
The book is organized chronologically, so by the time we reach Kosovo, we have already blown through the Middle East – Iraq, Lybia, Israel, Palestine. One particular story stands out: “Shadow of Evil,” January 22, 1995, chronicling the unbelievable tale of Latif Yahia, the body double of Saddam Hussein’s son, Uday. Colvin also describes a frightening moment in her Bagdad hotel, when she sees, while casually gazing through a window, a cruise missile hurtling toward her. (“Under Fire,” January 27, 1991.) Thankfully, it swerved away to target a parliamentary building.
From Kosovo, Colvin recounts with harrowing intimacy the experience of walking single-file in the night with the Kosovo Liberation Army, taking fire from Serbian forces, and living in the KLA headquarters with fighters who are, as Colvin herself notes, characters straight out of the movies. But the small, personal details of her reports are what resonated most deeply with me.
This, for example: “The human body, when burnt, is reduced to an almost childlike size. It is a horrible piece of knowledge that comes with reporting from Kosovo.” (“The Neighbour Who Burned With Hate,” June 20, 1999.) Or, this: “The couple buries their sons and Popaj’s two brothers on the [river] bank, with their names on a slilp of paper in a soft drink bottle to mark the spot.” (“British Detectives On Trail Of Men Behind Massacres,” June 27, 1999.) A scrap of paper in a soft drink bottle. It’s these details, lost in most dry news accounts of the “who, what, where, and when,” that give a true sense of the conflict.
Colvin’s reporting is exceptional and “On the Front Line” is both a gripping read and a lesson in history. Accurately memorializing death and destruction is, in theory, essential for reconciliation, closure, healing, and prevention – though the instances in which journalism has actually prevented conflict are scant.
By her own admission, Colvin was drawn to danger zones and a fire burned in her to tell the un-tellable tales. That fire killed her in the end.
Yours truly, one story at a time,