Marie Colvin and the face of war

Marie Colvin was one of the outstanding war correspondents of our time.  She was killed in 2012 while reporting on the Syrian government’s bombardment of the city of Homs.

I never read her work when she was alive, partly because it was behind the paywall of the London Sunday Times, but I got some idea of her work by seeing a docudrama of her life with a couple of friends.  I also read samples of her work collected by the Marie Colvin Center for International Reporting at Stony Brook (NY) State University.

The movie is outstanding in its depiction of the human cost of war. which was the focus of Marie Colvin’s reporting.  It shows her willingness to risk her life to see what was happening first hand.

The first scenes of the movie show her losing her left eye while reporting on the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka in 1999.  Later scenes show her struggling with post-traumatic stress syndrome, and the last scene shows her death.

The movie understandably neglects the other part of her achievement, which was her ability to make contacts and win trust so that she could get to the scene of events and talk to the people.

I have misgivings about docudramas about the lives of contemporary people.  Even when they don’t distort the facts, I feel that I am being invited to invade privacy and learn things that are none of my business

Rosamund Pike gives an outstanding performance, showing Colvin’s compassion, anger, toughness and vulnerability in a convincing way. and it is roughly true to the known facts.  But every time I see a photo of Marie Colvin, I’ll think of the scenes of Pike in the nude.

The movie uses a quote by Marie Colvin that her goal was to make newspaper readers care about the suffering of civilians in war as much as she did.  She wrote once that she was more concerned about the human impact of war and less about the geopolitical implications.

The first episode of the move shows Marie Colvin drawing attention to the suffering of civilians, who were deprived of food and medicine in the Sri Lanka government’s war with the Tamil Tigers separatists.

Well and good, but what could have been done to help the suffering Sri Lankan people?  Air drops of food and medical supplies?  Sanctions against the Sri Lankan government?  Occupation of Sri Lanka by a UN peacekeeping force?

In the American Civil War, the Union forces imposed a blockade of the Southern states and the Union army destroyed crops and livestock.  General Sherman said that war is hell, and the most humane way to wage war is that way that ended it most quickly.

Maybe there was a way to help the Sri Lankan civilians without prolonging the war and the suffering, but it is not obvious to me.

Marie Colvin’s reported extensively the atrocities of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Muammar Qaddafi in Libya and Bashir al-Assad in Syria, and was used to justify efforts by the U.S. government to bring about regime change in those countries.

At the time, I personally thought that nothing could be worse than the rule of the tyrant Saddam.  But the state of all three countries is now much worse than before the United States decided to intervene in those countries..

That’s not to justify atrocities, or to say that Marie Colvin should have reported in a different way than she did, or to say that we newspaper readers shouldn’t be concerned about so-called “collateral damage”.

Rather it is a warning to distinguish between war reporting and war propaganda.

In the movie, Marie Colvin is shown ignoring the demand of the U.S. Army that war correspondents be embedded with the troops and setting off on her own to Fallujah to see the excavation of bodies of people killed in the bombings of that city. 

The major bombing of Fallujah was by U.S. and allied forces during the 1991 Gulf War, but the script calls for the Marie Colvin character to say that it doesn’t matter who was responsible, what matters is the suffering of civilians.  What this reflects is the unwillingness of a major movie studio to openly criticize the U.S. military.

All that said,  I admire Marie Colvin for her courage, compassion and professional achievement and I recommend “A Private War” as a tribute to her work.


Marie Colvin’s Private War by Marie Brenner for Vanity Fair (2012).  The movie was based on this article.

Slain Correspondent Marie Colvin Gets a Worthy Showcase in A Private War by Richard Lawson for Vanity Fair.

The True Story Behind the Movie A Private War by Alejandro de la Garza for Time magazine.  Separating fact from drama.

Samples of Marie Colvin’s writing,

Shadow of Evil (1995).  About Uday Hussein’s unwilling double.

Courage Knows No Gender (1999).  About female and male war correspondents.

The Shot Hit Me (2001).  How she lost her eye.

Fighting Back (2001).  Was the story worth losing an eye for?

Into the Underworld (2005).  About the Palestinian tunnel network.

Mad Dog and Me (2011).  Recollections of Qaddafi.

We Live in Fear of a Massacre (2012).  A final report from Homs in Syria.

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