CNN’s Prisoner of War
Posted By MJ On December 11, 2008 @ 9:16 am In Features
“I am not the same fucking person,” he tells me. “I am not the same person. I don’t know how to come home.”
It’s October, six months after our first meeting, and Michael Ware, 39, is at his girlfriend’s apartment in New York, trying to tell me why after six years he absolutely must start spending less time in Iraq. He’s crying on the other end of the telephone.
“Will I get any better?” he continues. “I honestly don’t know. I can’t see the — right now, I know no other way to live.”
To begin to understand where he’s coming from, Ware wants you to see a movie. He filmed it. It’s just after midnight during the second battle of Fallujah, November 2004. The marine unit he’s hooked up with has cornered six insurgents inside a house, and with no air support available, the only way to take them out is person-to-person. Staff Sergeant David Bellavia doesn’t like the sound of that — odds are one of his men, or he, will die in the pitch-black of an unfamiliar house — but he knows he can’t just let these guys go. So he asks for volunteers to go with him: Three men raise their hands, followed by Ware, who as a reporter (then for Time, now for CNN) is the only one without a gun or night goggles, and still can’t explain why he went along. He just couldn’t not.
Ware flips on his video camera and creeps into the house six feet behind Bellavia. His device is picking up nothing but darkness and the slow, creaking sound of footsteps. Then, light, blinding light. Bullets ping around the living room, and before he knows what’s going on, two bodies drop. Bellavia has knocked off the first of them. For the next hour — until all six insurgents are carried out dead from the house — Ware captures that same pattern of blackness and near silence (in the background you can hear the insurgents chanting, “Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar”) pierced by gunfire and screaming.
Ware believes he recorded the perfect war experience that night, a snapshot you can get only from terrifying proximity. He dreams of renting out a theater and subjecting an audience to it in full surround sound; that way people would know what it’s really like over there. “It’s my firm belief that we need to constantly jar the sensitivities of the people back home,” he says. “War is a jarring experience. Your kids are living it out, and you’ve inflicted it upon 20-odd million Iraqis. And when your brothers and sons and mates from the football team come home, and they ain’t quite the same, you have an obligation to sit for three and a half minutes and share something of what it’s like to be there.”
It’s an obligation now owed to Michael Ware, too.
When I first met Ware, in Amsterdam last April, it was four in the afternoon. He had just gotten up. He was hungover as hell and already into his first beer of the day. His face was scruffy, his shirt unbuttoned to his sternum; he was wearing wraparounds to block the light. “I can’t begin to tell you how little I’m in the mood for this,” were his first words to me. Even in his weakened state — maybe because of it — he seemed like the ideal of a foreign correspondent: His thick Aussie accent and facial contortions, his crime novelist diction and that sad, twisted nose, broken so many times on a rugby field that he stopped counting at a dozen. “I can break it for you right now,” he offered.
Over more beers his mood improved and he told me his story. He arrived in Iraq before the Americans did, in early 2003, after 13 months in Afghanistan. Since then he has been shot at, hunted, blindfolded, and stuffed into the back of cars, marked for death, and kidnapped — including once, in 2004, by an angry flock of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s boys. They dragged Ware into an anonymous building in Baghdad, hung up a banner, and were preparing to tape his execution with his own camera — until an Iraqi friend of his, a former Baathist, insisted they spare his life. “I didn’t leave my hotel room for three days after that,” he said. “I was nauseated for weeks.”
Yet he was also in love with the war, he said. Addicted to it. Felt that he had stumbled upon the story he was born to tell.
“Do you want to get to the nub of life?” Ware asked me. “To strip away the bullshit? Life is so distilled down in war — that’s an obvious statement — but to be able to see it with your own eyes and be able to discover that which lies within yourself, I don’t know, it’s more than life changing.
“You just can’t talk about things with anybody else — except those who know,” he said, seemingly oblivious to his girlfriend, photographer Lorena Ros, two feet away.
Although he takes pains not to dog fellow correspondents, it’s clear Ware thinks he has a bead on Iraq that others don’t. In 2006 he told CNN he couldn’t abide by the stringent security measures imposed on employees in Iraq, which inhibited travel in favor of safety. “In either its infinite wisdom or endless insanity,” he says, CNN acquiesced.
This freedom has helped Ware stay a year in front of conventional wisdom. In 2003, while others were covering the conquest of Baghdad, he talked with Iraqi policemen and soldiers, the men who would become the insurgency. Then in 2004, when Donald Rumsfeld was dismissing these insurgents as “dead-enders,” Ware was reporting on their strength after seeing their training camps firsthand. Two years later, Ware was branding the conflict in Iraq a civil war while the Bush administration boasted about the results of Iraq’s democratic elections. This year his obsession has been the extent of Iran’s influence over the Iraqi government.
“Baby, I’ll be there filming that last chopper as it flies off the embassy that you’re giving to Iran,” Ware says.
“From the moment the first American tanks crossed the Kuwait border, America was in a proxy war with Iran,” Ware says. “The Iranians knew it, but it took the U.S. four years to figure it out. Now the Iraqi government is comprised almost entirely of factions created in Iran, supported by Iran, or with ties to the Iranian government — as many as 23 members of the Iraqi parliament are former members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.”
Explaining why he first wanted to become a war reporter, Ware mentions an Australian cameraman named Neil Davis, whose interviews he used to listen to as a child. Davis is famous for shooting footage of a North Vietnamese tank running through the presidential palace in Saigon; he’s also known for filming his own death during a 1985 coup in Bangkok. Among his maxims was that it’s one thing to film a soldier firing his weapon, but it’s a whole other thing to shoot the expression on his face as he does it.
“If you think about it, to get that expression on his face, what do you have to do?” Ware asks. “You have to break from cover and expose yourself. You have to get in front of the man who is shooting and being shot at. Because that’s where the story is, in that face.”
Ware’s detractors have painted him as a drunk, a rage-aholic, a partisan. They claim he heckled John McCain at a press conference and accuse him of being a terrorist stooge for airing enemy footage of U.S. troops being gunned down — anything to mark him as, at best, too rough to be trusted or, at worst, outright unhinged. And though he’s still able to perform during his three-and-a-half-minute spots on CNN, it isn’t hard to make a case against him for erratic behavior. Fellow reporters claim Ware has bragged about being drunk on air (he denies it) and has destroyed television equipment during epic tantrums (“Things get broken in bureaus from time to time; it’s just normal wear and tear,” he demurs). He admits to having a terrible time sustaining relationships and once got in an altercation with another man over his former girlfriend (and fellow tabloid fodder) CBS reporter Lara Logan. He can’t sleep and watches trash TV until the sun comes up over Baghdad. In short, he hasn’t been well for a while.
“The American military is guilty of an unmitigated war crime,” Ware says, his face flush. For the first time since we met, he falls silent. “Near beer. In any civilized army that goes to war, the fundamental rule is two cans, per man, per day. This rule about no alcohol for the soldiers is absurd. That’s what Nuremberg was about, all right.” It’s a good line, the kind of black humor that endears Ware to the troops.
“I can’t stand the media, but I would go through hell with a bucket of gasoline for Michael Ware,” says Sergeant Bellavia, who was nominated for the Medal of Honor for his service in Fallujah. “He goes through all the things we go through — 55 cigs a day, no sleep. And if we were allowed to drink, we’d drink as much as he does.
“When you look at him, you look into vacant eyes. He looks like my military friends do. He’s seen enough shit.”
But finally, slowly, Ware is starting to pull out of Iraq. Instead of living there 11 months of the year, he is cutting down to six, traveling to other war zones around the world to report for CNN.
“I’m a war dog,” he says. “After seven straight years, you’re always hypervigilant, always on alert. You become conditioned to a state of being where everything is a threat and it’s hard to turn that off; that becomes your normal. There’s an old cliché about the legendary war correspondent who comes home to find he has no wife or many ex-wives, no kids or kids who won’t talk to him, who has no tapestry to his life. At some point you have to consciously reclaim your life.”
It’s a tough balance. On one hand, he feels tremendous responsibility for his best friends in the war: his team of Iraqi translators, drivers, and fixers. At least three of them have been abducted and tortured for personal information on Ware, and not one rolled on him. All of them would die for him.
“How do you ever reconcile the fact that you’ve abandoned your brotherhood and you know that they’ll eventually be killed because of their association with you?” Ware asks. “How do you say, ‘Hey, guys, we’ve traveled a long ride, so if you survive, drop me a line in 10 years and let me know you’re alive and we can catch up’? It doesn’t work like that.”
“I can’t stand the media,” Sergeant Bellavia says, “but I would go through hell with a bucket of gasoline for Michael Ware.”
As uncomfortable as he is with the idea of his leaving Iraq, if Ware were setting policy, American forces would be in Iraq for a very, very long time. He shudders at the idea of massive American troop withdrawals. Horrific genocide, he predicts; worse than Bosnia. “John McCain said, ‘The war’s going so well, so why stop now?’ I say it’s going so badly that we have to pay the price to prevent what’s to come.”
“The successes in bringing down the violence are undeniable, yet America hasn’t been looking at the price to deliver these successes. Obama can bring American kids home tomorrow, but are you willing to mortgage your foreign policy future in that region? Are you willing to walk away from a stronger Iran that is gaining leverage to be a nuclear power? Are you willing to accept your diminished influence in the Middle East? As long as the American public is willing to ante up, then you can bring them home.”
Last April he boasted of his ability to persevere. Alluding to the fall of Saigon, he said, “Baby, I’ll be there filming that last chopper as it flies off the embassy that you’re giving to Iran.” In October, I asked if he’ll still hang on to the bitter end.
“Fucking A right!” he shoots back. But within minutes, he’s welling up again, talking about how badly he needs to make a change. “You lose touch with life. It sounds trite, but I need to find humanity again a little bit. In so many ways, war casts a shadow across you that will never leave, dark places seen that can never be forgotten,” Ware says. “When you get to the point where you come home from a bombing, realize what’s on the soles of your shoes, and can wipe it off without a second thought — it takes its toll. I was on the verge of becoming irretrievable.”
The last six years have made Ware an Iraqi citizen both by choice (it’s his official residence) and, in a sense, the polar opposite. Even when he’s out drinking with friends in Amsterdam, he’s stuck in Kirkuk. When he’s at his girlfriend’s place in New York, he’s in Diyala.
Of the many stories that haunt Ware when he closes his eyes but can’t sleep, this one singes a little more because he caught it on film and CNN refused to air it: It was spring 2007. He was in Diyala province, in a village north of Baghdad, embedded with a U.S. infantry platoon conducting a sweep for insurgents. By the time they arrived at daybreak, the insurgents had fled. The whole thing looked like a bust, but then there was a shot. An American sniper had seen an armed man running toward the platoon and put a bullet in the back of his skull. The soldiers went to look for him. Was he dead? Was he still a threat? When they found him, alive, they dragged him to a secure area.
“When you get to the point where you come home from a bombing, realize what’s on the soles of your shoes, and can wipe it off without a second thought — it takes its toll.”
“Then, for the next 20 minutes,” Ware remembers, “all of us just stood around and watched this guy’s life slowly ebb away in painful, heaving sobs for air, rendering him absolutely no assistance or aid. If that had been an American soldier, he would have been medevacked out and in 20 minutes would’ve landed on an operating table. Once an enemy combatant comes into your custody, you’re obliged by the Geneva Conventions to render that wounded prisoner all aid. Even I — with my rudimentary medical training, I don’t think his life could’ve been saved — but even I could’ve eased his passing.
“Instead a towel was laid over his face, making his breathing much more labored and painful, the taunts continued, and we just sat around and watched him die.
“And for some bizarre reason, it was just me and this platoon of soldiers, and I was able to see the dispassion of these kids in the way they just watched his life slip away. I was filming and worrying about the best composition of the shot, and I realized that I too was watching just as dispassionately. There’s no blame to be laid here. That guy was a legitimate target who was rightfully shot in the head. But it made me realize, just once more, that this kind of dehumanization is what happens when we send our children to war.”
This article originally appeared in the January 2009 issue of Men’s Journal.
Article printed from Men's Journal: http://archive.mensjournal.com
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