‘Marie Colvin created herself in the image of the ideal war correspondent. She crafted a one-of-the-boys persona: she was tougher than the toughest’
Most journalists at some point dream of two things: writing a brilliant book and covering war, Martha Gellhorn style. Many do the former, but very few achieve the latter. It’s meaningful work — bearing witness and exposing the horrors of conflict.
For her generation, Marie Colvin exemplified the trade as she covered combat from one end of the globe to the other, famously wearing La Perla underwear and designer clothing under her body armour. As a result of a grenade attack in Sri Lanka, Colvin wore an eyepatch after losing the sight in one eye, something that further distinguished her. She wrote brilliant copy and proved her bravery — but the Sunday Times correspondent’s own story came to a harrowing end when she was reporting on the siege of Homs in Syria. She was killed by the Assad regime, according to her family. She was never going to die in her bed.
Her death brings up a host of questions that dog editors and other journalists. How far do you go to get a story, what price should you pay for a scoop, and is it ever worth dying for a page lead?
The question is relevant because six years after Colvin’s death her fellow war correspondent Lindsey Hilsum has written Colvin’s biography, In Extremis (Chatto & Windus, £20). The title is how Colvin explained what she did: “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.”
War photographer Paul Conroy’s 2014 book about his final mission with Colvin, Under the Wire (Quercus, £9.99), has been adapted into a gritty documentary directed by Chris Martin, and the Oscar-nominated star Rosamund Pike plays Colvin in the Hollywood film, A Private War, which was released last month.
We glamorise and lionise the ultra-elite who cover war, in much the same way that the femme fatale assassin is glamorised in the BBC series Killing Eve. Colvin’s mystique captures our imagination for obvious reasons, illustrated by Conroy’s description of coming across the larger-than-life reporter in a war zone, popping out of a pile of rubble smoking a cigarette. No wonder Conroy said that they had “the time of our lives” working together.
I’m not sure I’ve ever had a more fantastic adventure than the days and nights I stayed in Siloppi, a small town in south-east Turkey, waiting to cross into northern Iraq on the eve of the war in 2003. The two male journalists I spent the most time with acted as if the whole thing was a lark.
It’s perhaps no surprise that war correspondents guard their exclusive club jealously. It is a magic circle into which few are admitted. Colvin created herself in the image of the ideal war correspondent. She crafted a one-of-the-boys persona: she was tougher than the toughest.
It’s a macho culture, full of bravado, camaraderie, fulfilment, excitement and, inevitably, ego. During one breakfast on the trip into Iraq I sat between two warring parties: the BBC’s John Simpson and ITN’s Julian Manyon. In the battle of the big ego, I felt lucky to escape unscathed.
But there are lots of war reporters who work for no recognition. TV journalists go into war zones in teams with a ton of equipment and paid security. Footage of them in their helmets and flak jackets doesn’t show the support crew, the boom mike, the satellite dish.
Hilsum refused to go to Homs because it was just too dangerous. While Colvin clearly knew the risks and she and Conroy made difficult, informed decisions every step of the way, she also broke some rules, and breaking them is perhaps what got her killed. She should not have given broadcast interviews to the BBC and CNN which allowed Syrian government intelligence to monitor her position.
As any seasoned war correspondent will tell you, listen to the locals, take security advice and never double back on yourself. Colvin, determined to tell the story of the people in the suburb of Baba Amr, went back to report on the siege and died there.
Colvin was tough. One photographer said she was scarier than the war they were covering and refused to work with her. When two French journalists appeared (one was seriously injured in the attack that killed Colvin), she suggested leaving as the “Eurotrash” had arrived.
An example of pushing too far is the tale of journalist Nick della Casa, his wife of six months, Rosanna, and his brother-in-law Charlie Maxwell, who were killed in the mountains of Kurdistan in 1991. It’s an initially romantic story full of adventure in which Rosanna navigated by the stars and cooked wild grasses when they were lost. According to those who knew them and their situation, della Casa failed to make a rational analysis of the danger. He was regarded by colleagues as a loose cannon and an accident waiting to happen — part glorious intrepidness, part pure insanity, which is how Conroy summed up his final mission with Colvin.
It’s the myth surrounding Colvin that sits uncomfortably with me because there are so many other journalists, including in this instance Syrians, who deserve the same plaudits.
So was it worth it? Was Colvin foolhardy or brave? The people in Homs regard her as a hero, but many journalists will say that getting out alive and uninjured is the ultimate goal.