Film — December 4, 2018, 12:37 pm

A Private War

Life during wartime is more complicated than easily digestible, Hollywood heroism

Still from A Private War

When young women come to me and say, “I want to be a war reporter!” after seeing Hollywood films that glamorize the job, I always tell them gently to consider the life that it entails. Perhaps the mantra that first-wave feminists gave us is not true after all: you cannot have it all. Or at least not without dark consequences.

In 2012, while working on a story about war criminals in Belgrade, Serbia, I got a devastating early morning phone call: my colleague and friend Marie Colvin was dead, killed by Bashar al-Assad’s bombs in Homs, Syria. Her roller-coaster life is captured in a new film, A Private War, currently in theaters.  

The director of A Private War, Matt Heineman, won accolades for his brilliant documentaries on the drug war (Cartel Land, 2015) and the Islamic State (City of Ghosts, 2017). He struggled, as did the actors, to make the film truly authentic. But because it is not a biopic (Heineman resists the term) and some characters are composites, the movie is confusing to those of us who know the real story. There were no good guys at the Sunday Times, where Colvin worked, who cared for her well-being. There were instead editors who wanted scoops at the expense of the safety of their reporters. Colvin had many friends in London, but none of them were similar to the Bridget Jones–style girlfriend character (portrayed by Nikki Amuka-Bird) in the film. Her last boyfriend was not a caring and loving Stanley Tucci but rather a man who gave her immense heartache and distress. There were no “heads on sticks” in Bosnia, as the character meant to be Colvin’s first husband, Patrick Bishop, says in one of the opening scenes (heads were on sticks in Chechnya). Colvin’s second husband, Juan Carlos Gumucio, is erased from the script altogether, though he played an important role in her life.

A more accurate and moving film about female war reporters, Bearing Witness, was co-directed by Barbara Kopple, the Academy Award–winning documentarian, who contacted me in the fall of 2002. Since I began reporting from conflict zones in the early 1990s, I had been asked dozens of times whether women reported war differently from men. “No,” I would bristle, annoyed by the question. I did not confine myself to reporting from hospitals and orphanages. I went to the front lines with soldiers and embedded with rebel armies. I lived for months in the field or the bush; I did not wash; I carried the dead and wounded out of trenches. I did everything my male colleagues did, and tried to mirror their emotions. At least I thought I did.

The documentary was meant to be a granular reflection of women in a highly macho world. It focused on me and three other women, one of them Marie Colvin. A Private War does depict Colvin’s tortured life, but Kopple’s film captured the real Marie Colvin: without Hollywood glamour, props, or wardrobe. Although Rosamunde Pike’s performance in the new film is brilliant, I preferred the gritty reality of Kopple’s painful but real documentary about the lives of women who chose to be war reporters.

Despite Kopple’s renown—she won her Oscar for Harlan County, USA in 1976—I had misgivings about being the subject of a documentary, because at the time I was questioning the choices I had made about my profession. I believed in bearing witness (the title of Kopple’s film) to atrocities, and I was motivated by a strong sense of justice. But I wanted, more than anything, to have a family. I yearned for the stability and balance I didn’t have as a war correspondent. After two decades in war zones, witnessing the siege of Sarajevo, the fall of Grozny to Russian forces, the genocides in Srebrenica and Rwanda, the child soldiers who tried to kill me in Liberia and Sierra Leone, I was burnt out.

I wanted a kitchen where I could cook Thanksgiving dinners. I wanted to tell friends to come around for supper and to be there, without leaving a note on the door that I had been called away unexpectedly to the Congo or East Timor.

When I started reporting, PTSD was not common among war reporters, but after a particularly grueling mission in Bosnia, I was contacted by a Canadian psychiatrist, Dr. Anthony Feinstein. He used me and some of my colleagues as subjects to conduct a three-year study on the effect of trauma on frontline reporters. His remarkable findings were published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, and later in a book, Dangerous Lives, which became a road map for how news organizations could protect their reporters    

 When Feinstein called me into his office in London for my final consultation, he told me I did not suffer from PTSD, despite the terrifying hallucinations I had post–Sierra Leone of amputated people everywhere. He believed I had a strong core of resilience.  I mistakenly took that as a benediction, so I pushed myself even harder, farther down even lonelier roads and more perilous assignments, closer to death. It did not help that the news organization I worked for at the time encouraged me to perform more daring exploits in order to get a big story.

 I experienced a kidnapping; a mock execution in Kosovo; too many near rapes to count; a drunk soldier pointing an AK-47 (safety off) at my heart in the Ivory Coast as I tried to drag a wounded man to a hospital; death threats from Foday Sankoh’s government in Sierra Leone for stealing documents related to blood diamonds; and bombardments so fierce in Grozny that I thought my eardrums would rupture. My nerves certainly suffered.

I’d come back from assignments to my London flat and try to recover, to piece my life back together. Many of my colleagues were completely devastated by what they had seen. The level of alcoholism, divorce, drug abuse, breakups, misery, and sorrow once we left the front line was astonishing. There was a period in my life when I found it intolerable to go to parties and hear what I perceived to be the banalities of ordinary life. My colleagues and I rejected the traditional world, and we were paying the price for it.

One night, Juan Carlos, Colvin’s second husband, and I were partying late. JC, as we called him, was the last to go. I walked him to the door. He took my hand. “Goodbye,” he said. “I won’t see you for some time.”

“But I’m seeing you in a few weeks,” I replied, recalling a gathering coming up in the not-so-distant future.

He shook his head, smiled, and said, “No, you won’t. It’s time.”

I suddenly realized what he meant: suicide. I ran down the stairs after him. “Don’t do that!” I pleaded. “It’s so much darker down there.”

I was in Somalia a few months later, working on a story for The New York Times Magazine on the Shabab when I got a call on my satellite phone. JC had shot himself back home in Bolivia. I sat on the rooftop, the sound of gunfire ringing through Mogadishu, and wept for my beautiful friend. Colvin later told me, “He saw too much.”

I also wept for myself and what I was missing, and so I made a hard choice as I watched the statue of Saddam falling in Firdos Square in Baghdad a few years later: I vowed I would have a normal life. I was engaged to be married to another war reporter, whom I had met during the siege of Sarajevo. We wanted to have a child, to ease the darkness of our lives, to have redemption.

By the time Koppel’s documentary crew came to film our wedding in the French Alps, my husband’s ancestral home, I was pregnant. My happiness dissolved when, dressing for my wedding, I caught sight of the news: the UN headquarters in Baghdad, the Canal Hotel, had been hit by a car bomb. My husband and I watched the TV, horrified—but also conflicted about the fact that we were not there, in the midst of it.

My employer, the Times of London, was not thrilled with my new role.

“I’ve got a war reporter who can’t go to war!” thundered the then foreign editor, a father of five. “How am I going to cover this war?” When I suggested he use someone else, he fumed, “I can’t send inexperienced people! What you are good at is getting into places other people can’t go!” I suddenly realized he thought of me as cannon fodder.

He forced me to go back to Iraq while I was still breastfeeding, stating that it was in my contract. I sobbed on the plane, with a picture of my infant tucked in my pocket. I sobbed in my Baghdad office when I had to pump breast milk and throw it down the drain. I heard a male colleague say triumphantly on the satellite phone, “She had a baby and lost her nerve!” They sent me to Sadr City anyway, at a particularly dangerous time, my body still recovering from a high-risk pregnancy and six months of bed rest.

But that male colleague was right: I had changed. I always found it hard to witness the extreme suffering of children and innocents. The first time I saw a child shot in the abdomen, in Central Bosnia, screaming in agony with no painkillers, I threw up. I tried to be tougher, but I never developed the thick skin I needed. Motherhood made it nearly impossible to watch children suffer, as I saw in the later wars I reported, in Syria and Yemen. I would decompress by coming home and playing with my son, and becoming the most clichéd 1950s housewife I could imagine: I even baked cakes and wore an apron.

I tried, but I’m not sure I mastered this schizophrenic existence. Earlier this week, I went to a parent-teacher meeting at my son’s school. My husband, Bruno, who bravely battled his own PTSD demons and conquered them, and I separated long ago but continued to co-parent with a profound desire to give our son stability and love. When Bruno was shot by a sniper in Libya during the fall of Qaddafi, I broke the news to my son gently, realizing how unnatural this was. His dad was evacuated from Tripoli, recovered, and was fine. Our boy grew and flourished.

But this week, one of his teachers told me about a paper he submitted. When asked what the students feared the most, most of the boys in his ninth-grade class wrote about how hard it was to talk to girls. But Luca wrote, “I am afraid my mother will get her head chopped off by a sword in Iraq.” And it suddenly occurred to me, with shame, that all of my bravado about being the same as the male reporters was not accurate. Women, when they choose to be mothers, have to make a choice, and I was not entirely honest about mine: this lifestyle was hurting those who loved me.   

Marie Colvin did not have children; neither did Martha Gellhorn, my role model and Hemingway’s third wife. Very few of my female colleagues did. I did not have many role models, and so I winged it the best I could. I made mistakes—the early Iraq trip when I should have stood firm and said no, the journeys away from home when I should have been there—but I am proud of the work my colleagues and I do, especially the evidence that we supply to war-crime tribunals. I also know that my work casts a shadow on the people dearest to me. My son once said to me, “I never know when you go away if you will come back again.” That broke my heart, even though I know he is proud of the work his parents do.

Kopple’s film shows the darkness of Marie Colvin’s PTSD, alcoholism, and struggles with combining real-world responsibilities with her extraordinary career. Her sister, the attorney Cat Colvin, once described how Marie would jet back from war zones to be at her close-knit Irish Catholic family’s holiday dinner table on Long Island. Her working life—its minefields, mortars, and snipers—seemed a million miles away from suburban Long Island, with her nieces and nephews running around and a hearty meal on the table. That, too, was part of her struggle—the effort required to balance her life.

But I respect A Private War because I applaud the depiction of Colvin’s courage and her legacy. I just don’t want young women to watch it and think that being a war reporter is glamorous. It is not. If they want to know the gritty and unpleasant reality—the heartache, the miscarriages, the alcohol, and the emotional hangovers—they should take a look at Barbara Kopple’s 2004 documentary as well.

Single Page

More from Janine di Giovanni:

From the December 2018 issue

The Vanishing

The plight of Christians in an age of intolerance

Postcard May 5, 2016, 11:37 am

A Sense of War

What does the war in Aleppo smell of? It smells of carbine, of wood smoke, of unwashed bodies, of rubbish rotting, of fear.

From the April 2013 issue

Life During Wartime

Remembering the siege of Sarajevo

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada



February 2019

“Tell Me How This Ends”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Without a Trace

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

What China Threat?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Going to Extremes

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content


What China Threat?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Within about fifteen years, China’s economy will surpass America’s and become the largest in the world. As this moment approaches, meanwhile, a consensus has formed in Washington that China poses a significant threat to American interests and well-­being. General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), has said that “China probably poses the greatest threat to our nation by about 2025.” The summary of America’s 2018 National Defense Strategy claims that China and Russia are “revisionist powers” seeking to “shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model—gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions.” Christopher Wray, the FBI director, has said, “One of the things we’re trying to do is view the China threat as not just a whole-­of-­government threat, but a whole-­of-­society threat . . . and I think it’s going to take a whole-­of-­society response by us.” So widespread is this notion that when Donald Trump launched his trade war against China, in January 2018, he received support even from moderate figures such as Democratic senator Chuck Schumer.

Shanghai Broadcasting Building, by Cui Jie (detail) © The artist. Courtesy private collection
Without a Trace·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In December 2015, a twenty-­two-year-­old man named Masood Hotak left his home in Kabul, Afghanistan, and set out for Europe. For several weeks, he made his way through the mountains of Iran and the rolling plateaus of Turkey. When he reached the city of Izmir, on the Turkish coast, Masood sent a text message to his elder brother Javed, saying he was preparing to board a boat to Greece. Since the start of the journey, Javed, who was living in England, had been keeping tabs on his younger brother’s progress. As Masood got closer to the sea, Javed had felt increasingly anxious. Winter weather on the Aegean was unpredictable, and the ramshackle crafts used by the smugglers often sank. Javed had even suggested Masood take the longer, overland route, through Bulgaria, but his brother had dismissed the plan as excessively cautious.

Finally, on January 3, 2016, to Javed’s immense relief, Masood sent a series of celebratory Facebook messages announcing his arrival in Europe. “I reached Greece bro,” he wrote. “Safe. Even my shoes didn’t get wet.” Masood reported that his boat had come ashore on the island of Samos. In a few days, he planned to take a ferry to the Greek mainland, after which he would proceed across the European continent to Germany.

But then, silence. Masood stopped writing. At first, Javed was unworried. His brother, he assumed, was in the island’s detention facility, waiting to be sent to Athens with hundreds of other migrants. Days turned into weeks. Every time Javed tried Masood’s phone, the call went straight to voicemail. After a month passed with no word, it dawned on Javed that his brother was missing.

A screenshot of a December 2015 Facebook post by Masood Hotak (left), in Istanbul
Going to Extremes·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

When Philip Benight awoke on January 26, 2017, he saw a bright glow. “Son of a bitch, there is a light,” he thought. He hoped it meant he had died. His mind turned to his wife, Becky: “Where are you?” he thought. “We have to go to the light.” He hoped Becky had died, too. Then he lost consciousness. When he opened his eyes again, Philip realized he wasn’t seeing heaven but overhead fluorescents at Lancaster General Hospital. He was on a hospital bed, with his arms restrained and a tube down his throat, surrounded by staff telling him to relax. He passed out again. The next time he came to, his arms and legs were free, but a drugged heaviness made it hard to move. A nurse told him that his wife was at another hospital—“for her safety”—even though she was also at Lancaster General. Soon after, two police officers arrived. They wanted to know why Becky was in a coma.

Three days earlier, Philip, who was sixty, tall and lanky, with owlish glasses and mustache, had picked up his wife from an HCR ­ManorCare nursing home. Becky had been admitted to the facility recently at the age of seventy-­two after yet another series of strokes. They drove to Darrenkamp’s grocery store and Philip bought their dinner, a special turkey sandwich for Becky, with the meat shaved extra thin. They ate in the car. Then, like every other night, they got ice cream from Burger King and drove to their home in Conestoga, a sparse hamlet in southern Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Philip parked in the driveway, and they sat in the car looking out at the fields that roll down to the Susquehanna River.

They listened to the radio until there was nothing more to do. Philip went into the house and retrieved a container of Kraft vanilla pudding, which he’d mixed with all the drugs he could find in the house—Valium, Klonopin, Percocet, and so on. He opened the passenger-­side door and knelt beside Becky. He held a spoon, and she guided it to her mouth. When Becky had eaten all the pudding, he got back into the driver’s seat and swallowed a handful of pills. Philip asked her how the pudding tasted. “Like freedom,” she said. As they lost consciousness, the winter chill seeped into their clothes and skin.

Illustration by Leigh Wells (detail)
“Tell Me How This Ends”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

America in the Middle East: learning curves are for pussies.
—Jon Stewart, The Daily Show, June 2, 2015

In January 2017, following Donald Trump’s inauguration, his national security staffers entered their White House offices for the first time. One told me that when he searched for the previous administration’s Middle East policy files, the cupboard was bare. “There wasn’t an overarching strategy document for anywhere in the Middle East,” the senior official, who insisted on anonymity, told me in a coffee shop near the White House. “Not even on the ISIS campaign, so there wasn’t a cross-governmental game plan.”

Syrian Arab Red Crescent vehicles in eastern Ghouta, March 24, 2018 (detail) © Anas Alkharboutli/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Amount Arizona’s Red Feather Lodge offered to pay to reopen the Grand Canyon during the 2013 government shutdown:


In England, a flutist stole 299 rare bird skins from an ornithology museum in order to pay for a new flute.

The 70th governor of Ohio was sworn in on nine Bibles, which were held by his wife.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today