Sometimes we lose sight of those who are genuinely heroic

Marie Colvin could have been a ‘Stepford Wife’ had she been an entirely different sort of human being. Raised in relative bourgeois comfort on Long Island, the Yale graduate could have settled in to a mundane life of living the American dream.

But, she didn’t.

Instead, she led a life that led to her premature death on Feb. 22 this year, aged 56. She was murdered by Syrian government forces in the seige of Homs.

Her ‘real’  began with anti-Vietnam demonstrations and some union activity. She carried out her rousing of the troops with the full sanction of her very liberal parents. But, it was her astonishing journalistic skills combined with a preternatural bravery, and zero tolerance for official bullshit that made her career and reputation.

Colvin was a news correspondent and her extensive career led her to some of the most terrifying trouble spots in the world in a quest to get the news out to the rest of us who were sitting in comfortable easy chairs, far away from shellfire, in front of our big screen TVs.

She was often called a latter-day Martha Gellhorn. Ms. Gellhorn (who was at one time Mrs. Hemingway) was the war correspondent par excellence in World War Two, often taking huge risks to get out her copy to those at home. In fact, Gellhorn and Colvin became friends prior to the death of the older correspondent.

My point in writing this is that I have an especially deep regard to the war correspondents that toil at great risk and with a huge mortality rate in order to keep the rest of us – governments included – informed of the shit that is happening in what are euphemistically called ‘trouble spots’.

As I’ve written before, one of my great journalistic heroes is Ernie Pyle, the guy who created the image of GI Joe, the infantryman dogface in North Africa and Italy whose war was slogging through mud and blood. Pyle later went to the Pacific War and died from sniper fire on Iwo Jima. I once went to visit his grave at the Punchbowl Cemetery in Honolulu. His grave is one of thousands of white headstones marking the remains of countless male and female combatants. Out of military respect for journalists, they too are considered combatants.

And indeed they are.

Gellhorn is also on my list, and now Mari Colvin.

Colvin’s life was one of activism. She cared about the rebels, underdogs and ordinary citizens of beleaguered countries. She didn’t write her copy from afar. She was incessantly in the line of fire, and it was that ultimate line of fire that cost her life.

She was an on-air correspondent for both the BBC and CNN, and in her broadcasts from Syria unhesitatingly stated that government forces were committing “murder”. She noted how she had seen a baby die of shrapnel wounds from heavy shelling of rebel forces. She was also a longtime journalist with the Sunday Times of London.

Colvin was an attractive and beguiling figure who was easily able to charm males especially who came in contact with her. She struck up a relationship with Libyan tyrant Qaddaffi over a period of 25 years, yet had no delusions about the man. Last year she published an account of her encounters entitled Mad Dog and Me.

Ultimately, wherever there was trouble, there was Colvin. She was at the Gulf War, Kosovo, Chechnya, Afghanistan when the Soviet Union Invaded, East Timor and so on and so on.

No doubt a shrink could have had a field-day with Colvin. Death wish? Pathological grandstanding? Who can say? She herself even questioned her motives and admitted she constantly “weighed bravery against bravado”.

And she cut a figure out of a romance novel. When she wasn’t dodging bullets and artillery shells, she was a romantic’s ideal of a bon vivant; martini in one hand and cigarette in the other, and then, of course, that beguiling eye-patch, which came about after she lost her eye to shrapnel in a Sri Lanka conflict.

Did Colvin suffer from a pathological death wish? Not for me to say.

“Your goal is not to take a risk,” she said. “Your goal is, ‘I want to get the story.'”

Pretty much sums it up. I did that too, but only by covering council meetings and the odd traffic accident. Very little risk involved. Thank God for the Colvins of the world to keep the rest of us a bit honest. These people deserve huge respect.


2 responses to “Sometimes we lose sight of those who are genuinely heroic

  1. Personally, I think war correspondents are all a bit loony. Soldiers are there because they have no choice, correspondents put themselves into the line of fire because – to a certain extent anyway I suppose – of the thrill of it.

    Me? I like my little life, boring as it is, too much to risk my life just for the hell of it.

  2. I’m with you on this and I often wonder what prompts them — death wish or search for some kind of glory. On the other hand, we wouldn’t know much of what is happening except for them, so bless ’em in their looniness.

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