Tonight, “Only the Dead,” a documentary by my old Baghdad bureau chief Michael Ware premiers on HBO. I am both anticipating and dreading this documentary.
Ware was already well established as the guy with the sources in the insurgency by the time I started my second Iraq journey in early 2004. I met him in a hotel room in Baghdad and he struck me as someone deeply in love with the adrenaline of reporting on the insurgency, combat reporting, at continually cheating death. I was … not entranced, but deeply admiring. He’s a big guy, over six feet, with a build that reflects his days as a rugby player. His nose looks like he ran into a wall, picked himself up and did it again just to teach the wall a lesson. He was funny, profane, frightening and always ready with a good story. (It’s a shame I only have pictures of him at parties. I won’t post them, though. He’s been through enough.)
But he was also, by that time, deeply wounded. I didn’t realize how much, but he had gone from his native Australia to Afghanistan and then to Iraq. In three years of conflict, he had picked up an addiction to war that I would come to know as well. My friend Phil Zabriskie writes in TIME how damaged Ware would eventually become:
Ware’s camera catches a dazed, baleful expression across the Marine’s face. “I could see good men here losing their grip, losing themselves,” Ware narrates. He knows whereof he speaks, because the same thing, of course, was happening to him.
This became even more harder to ignore after Ware moved from TIME to CNN in mid-2006. Always high energy, he became increasingly manic and erratic. Friends and colleagues worried for his health and safety, concerned that the persona of Mick Ware, the madman Aussie war correspondent who’d take risks others wouldn’t, was starting to obscure the excellent, often prescient work done by Michael Ware, the journalist.
After he left Baghdad, he was a mess, Phil writes. “He could barely function away from war. He couldn’t sleep. He self-medicated. He saw roadside bombs when he drove and the faces of the dead when he closed his eyes.” He was suffering from serious PTSD. For a while, I had mild symptoms and likewise did reckless things. But Ware saw worlds worse than anything I encountered. “For a long time, Ware wanted to die,” Phil writes.
But thankfully, he found help. And now he’s telling the story of the war as only can, using the (initially) haphazardly filmed conflict. We haven’t spoken in years, but I hope that changes. If he can come back, there’s hope for everyone.
So I’m eager to see the film tonight (old addictions never really go away), but I’m also dreading the memories it will serve up. We had car bombs, friends kidnapped, and yes, killed. I almost took a bullet in Najaf. Iraq was unimaginably dangerous for reporters from 2004-2008 (and more so for Iraqis), a fact that our stateside audience just never seemed to grasp, no matter how many journalists were killed.
Anyway, Ware is right: Only the dead see the end of war. It never leaves you. And I don’t know if you can ever make peace with it. Maybe there are only cease-fires.