JANUARY 16, 2019
MUCH HAS BEEN MADE of Marie Colvin’s underwear. She wore La Perla of silk and lace. She claimed it on expenses (after it was looted from her hotel room in Indonesia). She was commissioned to write about her “lucky red bra” (after being hit by a government grenade in Sri Lanka). She pointed out it had been cream before it was soaked in her blood.
She had other trappings of glamour. She gave great parties where she wore small black dresses. She chain-smoked and mixed a mean vodka martini. This biographical detail was added by her editor to a dispatch she filed after losing sight in one eye. Afterward, recovering in a New York hotel, friends from a previous assignment sent a trolley filled with fabulous vodkas of all kinds. They had gotten the time difference wrong and it arrived at eight o’clock in the morning.
Colvin is widely regarded as the finest war correspondent — “if we can call ourselves that,” as she said ruefully in an interview — of her generation. She was born in Astoria, New York, in 1956, was educated at Yale, and cut her teeth reporting at wire service UPI. She became an international correspondent for The Sunday Times in 1985, specializing at first in the Middle East. A big break came in 1986, when she managed to interview Muammar Gaddafi, and to fend off his advances. After that, the assignments rolled in, from one conflict to another. Yasser Arafat gave her a string of pale pink pearls. In what all anticipated were the last days of Baghdad in 1991, she attended parties diplomats held to clear their fridges of champagne and pâté before the American bombs began to fall, on schedule. In their hotel, which wanted for running water, the press corps bathed in the swimming pool. She earned a reputation as the reporter who “went in furthest and stayed longest.” In East Timor, she believed she helped the rescue of 1,500 civilians from the militia by shaming the UN into staying. In Chechnya, she almost froze to death trekking to safety across the Caucasus Mountains. Six years ago, in Syria, she was killed by a regime rocket.
Lindsey Hilsum, international editor for the UK’s Channel 4 News, was lucky enough to count Colvin among her friends and peers. They first met on assignment in Eritrea. The biography she has written is drawn from the 300-odd diaries Colvin kept throughout her life and some 114 interviews that Hilsum conducted with family, friends, and colleagues. It begins by pausing to reflect that the time in which Colvin came of age was a heyday of journalism in the United States. Seymour Hersh uncovered American military atrocities in Vietnam; The New York Times and The Washington Post won a Supreme Court ruling against the federal government to publish the leaked Pentagon Papers. It was a time, she writes, “when reporters were heroes.” The attendant social change was not lost on a young Colvin, who wrote in her diary, “Everyone is wearing pants. I’ve got to talk to Mommy into letting me do it, for honor’s sake. I’m not sure I want to but I must,” and later that same year: “To church. Wore mini. The mother and the father no like.”
In the early spring of 2012, the BBC correspondent for Afghanistan, David Loyn, came to my school to give a talk about being an international correspondent. One of the first slides to appear depicted a blonde woman with an eyepatch. On stage, Loyn was talking about the dangers of his work; on screen, Marie Colvin smiled wryly. He gestured toward her. “She was one of the best,” he said, “and she was killed in Syria earlier this year.” I was 16. Not too long before I had been home, watching what looked like a weather report of the Middle East and North Africa, dotted with what would become known as fire emojis, listening to the broadcaster rattle off names: Misrata, Tunis, Benghazi, Sirte, Cairo, Damascus, Rabat. Before the weather report, the people with whom I went to school liked to bandy about that we lived in the end of history; it was the late years of the first decade of the third millennium, and most of them were the children of bankers.
I knew of the Arab Spring and, in general, had some grasp of what was taking place in the Middle East. I saw the photographs of the streets full of women, and the great green ribbons in Iran, and eventually also the wreckage in Homs. But I had not heard of Marie Colvin until that night when David Loyn loped the length of the stage like an imprisoned animal, decrying our Sunday supplement sensibilities.
It is easy, when approaching the lives of journalists who have covered conflict, to collapse into cliché. Even to say so is a truism. Other publications, in their reviews of Hilsum’s book, have deferred to their own international correspondents, contemporaries of Colvin who could relate to her experience and had expertise to offer. I am not one such person, and I am wary of becoming mired in plummy statements regarding the hyper-aliveness one gets in a warzone; the numbness, the trauma, the drinking, the thrill, and the dullness of the “normies” back home. Of objectivity, she told Oliver North in a 2004 interview, “It’s actually not that complicated. Wrong things are being done.” She was firm in her belief that the duty of the press “is to open a situation to scrutiny.” Her method was, in her words, to “go in bare,” getting unparalleled proximity to the people who featured in her stories — “eat what they eat […] sleep where they sleep.” She had, writes Hilsum, “Martha Gellhorn’s derision for ‘the big picture.’ For her, context mattered, but the experience of individuals in war, whether fighters or victims, was the essence of the story.” Hilsum compares Colvin to her idol Gellhorn as a great reporter, not because of the gender they share. Both Colvin and Hilsum have little interest in discussing how femalehood affects their work, except as a useful tool. In fact, both affirm that, especially in the Middle East, their gender granted them greater access: unlike many of their male peers, they were able to speak to female civilians.
Resisting the all-too-easy impulse to slip into hagiography, Hilsum nevertheless hints that Colvin is something of a martyr. She mentions that as newspapers battled cable news for people’s attention, one answer was to cultivate the brands of individual journalists (something that has reached hustling, fevered heights in the present gig economy). Colvin’s striking eye patch only increased her suitability for the new climate of photo bylines, but there are those who believe that The Sunday Times was too reckless in making danger and extreme risk-taking central to her image (chief among them her first ex-husband, Patrick Bishop). Hilsum, for her part, touches on this last element only briefly.
Colvin herself struggled with PTSD and grappled, painfully, with some of reporting’s more uncomfortable questions. Receiving an award for her work, she asked, “What is bravery, and what is bravado?” At another point, writing in The Sunday Times, she wondered, “Am I merely a voyeur, taking advantage of people in extremis?” Interviewing photographer Don McCullin for the paper in 2001, she wrote, “He knows it’s not all misery for us. There’s the adrenalin risk of life-and-death situations. There are the boring details of life you can leave behind. Face up to everything, McCullin says. I have.”
What ultimately emerges from In Extremis is a generous, complicated, brave, vivacious, fully alive woman, consummately committed to her work. Giving interviews on the day news of her daughter’s death broke, Rosemarie Colvin said, “The reason I’ve been talking to all you guys is that I don’t want my daughter’s legacy to be ‘no comment’ … because she wasn’t a ‘no comment’ person.” That legacy, according to her mother, is “be passionate and be involved in what you believe in. And do it as thoroughly and honestly and fearlessly as you can.” That is something this book commands us all to do, no matter the risk. Speaking at a reception to mark the fifth anniversary of her friend’s death, Hilsum said, “You do not need the grudges of war to lead an important life.” We should all aim, as a Sri Lankan priest wrote to Colvin in the days after her eye injury, to be “remembered here as an honest and good person.”