Marie Brenner is a writer-at-large for Vanity Fair. Her books include A Private War: Marie Colvin and Other Tales of Heroes, Scoundrels, and Renegades, from which this essay is adapted, and which inspired the 2018 feature film starring Rosamund Pike as Marie Colvin.
To understand the arc of her career, you have to know how it ended.
Marie Colvin’s last assignment was in February, 2012, in a ravaged war zone in Syria. She operated from what she called “a media centre” in Baba Amr, a district in the city of Homs, crouched with a few other journalists in a small building in narrow streets. The top floor had been blown off by the deluge of rockets and shells raining down from the forces of the dictator Bashar al-Assad. Now, on a Wednesday morning in the early hours, the American-born foreign correspondent who worked for decades for The Sunday Times of London awakened to the convulsions of rockets and shells around her.
With her was photographer Paul Conroy, fraught with anxiety because he was certain Ms. Colvin’s insistence on returning to Baba Amr could end in catastrophe. But Ms. Colvin was there to record it all: “Snipers on the rooftops of al-Baath University … shoot any civilian who comes into their sight. … It is a city of the cold and the hungry, echoing to exploding shells and bursts of gunfire.” There was, of course, no telephone or electricity. Freezing rain filled potholes and snow drifted through the windows during the coldest winter anyone in Baba Amr could remember. “Many of the dead and injured are those that risked their lives foraging for food,” Ms. Colvin wrote.
The essence of that detail was what mattered to Marie Colvin most: the need to bring to vivid life the human costs of war. Sprinting through a barrage of rockets, Ms. Colvin spent a day in a makeshift clinic, interviewing victims. The Sunday Times bannered her report across two pages. Later it would be noted that hers was one of the first convincing reports predicting Mr. al-Assad’s genocide, which would overtake Syria. After her first piece was filed, Ms. Colvin mailed her colleague Lucy Fisher, “I did have a few moments when I thought, ‘What am I doing? Story incredibly important though.’” She demanded to return to Baba Amr and would not hear otherwise. “It is sickening that the Syrian regime is allowed to keep doing this,” she wrote her editor when she returned three days later. “There was a shocking scene in an apartment clinic today. A baby boy lay on a head scarf, naked, his little tummy heaving as he tried to breathe. The doctor said, ‘We can do nothing for him.’ He had been hit by shrapnel on his left side. They just had to let him die as his mother wept.”
“This is insane, Marie,” Mr. Conroy told her angrily when she announced she had every intention of returning. “Assad has targeted you and all the journalists.” Trained in the British military, Mr. Conroy understood the peril. He also had an acute sense of Marie’s vexed tech skills. She was a woman of a certain age, who had started her career when you dictated a story over the phone to an editor. How could she ever truly understand the consequences of dialling from a satellite phone in an area where an enemy was trying to track her location? He argued with her, until she stalked off, saying, “Save a place for me at the bar.” Then he followed her, terrified of what could happen if he was not, as always, by Marie’s side.
I arrived in London a few days after Ms. Colvin died to write about her life for Vanity Fair. Mr. Conroy was still recovering from the explosions that almost cost him his leg. Dragging his IV poles, he forced himself to speak about Ms. Colvin at a reception at the Frontline Club, where London’s foreign correspondents meet. The next day, at the hospital, I spent hours by his bed. One of the first stories he told me took place outside Sirte in the Libyan civil war. Ms. Colvin and Mr. Conroy had been trapped for days as the troops who surrounded Libya’s strongman Moammar Gadhafi fought with those who were trying to depose the vicious despot. Minutes from deadline, in a speeding car heading for the border, there wasn’t a whisper of power they could use to transmit Marie’s copy from her laptop. The driver screamed as Mr. Conroy crawled onto the back of the car with his gaffer tape to place a booster, with sand and dust blowing in his eyes. Marie hit send. Then, both Paul and Marie screamed with relief as the car streaked down the highway. “I have never seen journalists who worked this way,” the driver told them. “Well, you have never worked with The Sunday Times,” Marie yelled.
A few words of context: For years, Marie Colvin had dined out on her early days as a 30-year-old reporter for the Associated Press posted to Beirut in 1986. Her first real scoop was the penetration of Mr. Gadhafi’s underground Libyan lair at the moment he was in a tense stand-off with then-U.S. president Ronald Reagan. Mr. Gadhafi was at this point an eccentric, under-the-radar autocrat who posed as a Bedouin chief, then anointed himself a colonel, directing bombings across Europe from subterranean rooms underneath his palace. Ms. Colvin refused to stay with the small press pack that had converged on Tripoli, hoping to get an interview. Arriving at his palace gate, she pretended to be French and captivated Mr. Gadhafi’s guards with her dark, curly hair and reporter’s moxie. At 3 a.m., she was summoned to a hideout three storeys beneath his palace garden. It contained an underground medical clinic, armoured doors with automatic locks and a throne room where Mr. Gadhafi would later lay out green shoes for her to wear. After one interview, he sent a nurse to her hotel room with a hypodermic needle. The nurse announced, “I Bulgarian; I take blood,” before Ms. Colvin could flee with her cassette tapes. The scoop made her name and brought Ms. Colvin to the attention of The Sunday Times, where she quickly rose to become one of the most acclaimed war reporters of her generation.
Ms. Colvin never wavered in the essential understanding of who she was and the importance of what she did. She could somehow use the term “bear witness” and get away with it. You can call a phrase such as that grandiose and self-inflated, and sometimes people did, but Marie had a mission that she turned into a vocation, and that was to go to the most violent and dismal places on Earth and bear personal witness to what man does to man. She was glamorous, but there was nothing glamorous about what she did. She was a paradox – a girl’s girl with a posse of devoted friends. From time to time, she would appear at someone’s door with fabulous shoes or clothes that she had spotted as a gift for a friend, or cook midnight feasts for a crowd. She was a romantic drawn to another world reality, a ferocious war correspondent who refused to recognize obstacles when she went into the field. Nothing deterred her – not rocket strikes, or military censors, or the loss of balance from her vision problems. Ms. Colvin did not think in gender terms; she just got the job done and used whatever means she had. She regaled her friends with stories from the field, shaped into performances that camouflaged the raw truth of her existence. After being rescued from bombings in the mountains of Chechnya – where she existed on snow and one jar of jam – she teased a friend that she could not have survived without the pricey fur the friend had pushed her to buy.
Ms. Colvin’s sangfroid and wit fit beautifully in London media and political circles, but there was a price: She battled PTSD and alcohol, and fiercely maintained a Size 4, wearing La Perla in the field. She made no secret of her love of men – and she was faithful to the ones she loved. In that way, she was often and easily betrayed. Her north stars were the glamorous war correspondents who came before her. At all times, she carried Martha Gellhorn’s The Face of War, a 1959 masterwork of dispatches from Ms. Gellhorn’s decades in the field, including her on-the-ground reporting from the liberation of Dachau, where her view of corpses stacked like kindling haunted the rest of her days. Ms. Colvin, too, had a recurring nightmare – of a 22-year-old Palestinian woman gunned down in a refugee camp in Lebanon. She was not interested in the strategy of war or its artillery, but rather the very real human dramas of those who suffered the consequences of what wars actually do to those who are somehow able to survive them.
What would Marie Colvin have made of this moment? Her deep belief from childhood was that if you told the story, it could make a difference. And tell the story she did: from Iraq and Iran and Libya and Kosovo; from Lebanon and Chechnya; from Gaza and Afghanistan. At Yale, she was taught by New Yorker writer John Hersey, and she studied his classic Hiroshima and its surgical detail of the horrific consequence of nuclear bombs dropped by the United States in 1945. “War reporting is still essentially the same. Someone has to go there and tell the story,” she noted, echoing Mr. Hersey.
“Why do I cover wars? I have been asked this often in the past week,” she wrote in April, 2001, when she was shot down in Sri Lanka. “Blood poured from my eye – and I felt a profound sadness that I was going to die.”
Consider the conditions in which Ms. Colvin filed that copy: She was somewhere between a hospital in Colombo and being evacuated to London. In desperate pain, she was determined to set down the facts of the matter – 500,000 Tamil civilians, “340,000 of them refugees,” were starving under an economic embargo that the government denied existed. But Ms. Colvin learned in Sri Lanka that yelling, “Press!” made her not neutral, rather an enemy in a country ruled by tyrants. It would have been inconceivable to her that only few years later, a president of the United States, despite a Constitution that guarantees a free press, would deploy the same language: “Trump Calls The News Media The ‘Enemy Of The American People,’” read a New York Times headline on Page 1 in April, 2017. One year later, a gunman walked into the Capital Gazette newspaper outside Annapolis, Md., and killed five employees.
Mr. Trump’s attacks have been so numerous and vociferous that they have become the white noise of horror for all who cherish the First Amendment. As I write this, in late April, the U.S. President has spent a busy morning tweeting that The New York Times is “truly the Enemy of the People” and decrying the “Fake News Media.” The same day, in Myanmar, Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo learned the country’s Supreme Court turned down their appeal of a seven-year jail sentence for “stealing state secrets” while reporting on a massacre of their country’s Rohingya Muslims. Meanwhile, in New York, Time magazine celebrated its Time 100 issue, which spotlights the most influential people in the world, with an all-day summit that featured the President’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner – a man friendly with Saudia Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. This comes six months after the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi Arabian agents, and four months after Time’s much-heralded “The Guardians and the War on Truth” issue, which featured Mr. Khashoggi, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo on the covers.
This year, the tone at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner was understandably muted. That morning, a white nationalist had invaded a Chabad outside San Diego, killing Lori Gilbert Kaye, who tried to shield Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein.
It was hard not to recall images of Berlin, 1932. In his keynote address, historian Ron Chernow tried to put the barbarism of this moment into perspective, invoking George Washington, Ronald Reagan and pioneering investigative reporter Ida Tarbell. “Campaigns against the press don’t get your face carved into the rocks of Mount Rushmore,” he noted. “For when you chip away at the press, you chip away at our democracy.”
Recently, Harold Evans, the former editor of The Sunday Times, issued a clarion call for sanctions for governments implicated in the murders of reporters. Mr. Evans’s crusade has stirred the conscience of the editors of the world – and Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Chrystia Freeland. In July, Canada will co-host, along with Britain, a two-day conference on media freedom.
Marie Colvin tragically did not live to see the degradation of the press in her home country. Targeted by Bashar al-Assad, her last column was filed on Feb. 19, 2012, from Homs and told the story of a veterinarian using his knowledge of sheep anatomy to treat the life-threatening wounds of thousands fleeing the genocide, which now has claimed more than 500,000 lives and displaced millions. This past January, a U.S. judge found that Mr. al-Assad’s regime deliberately targeted Ms. Colvin, and ordered them to pay over US$300-million to her family.
But in death, Ms. Colvin is now a legend, the Martha Gellhorn of her generation. She is gone, but her legacy cannot be silenced.