The Essential Value—and Deep Cost—of Reporting From War
Dan O’Brien on His Friendship With Conflict Journalist Paul Watson
I’m worried for journalists in Ukraine. Some have already been killed, and the rest are risking their lives in the crosshairs of a Russian military that doesn’t honor their presence, to say the least. I worry because of my friendship with Paul Watson, a reporter who spent 25 years covering wars in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria . . . The list goes on. Paul and I were artistic collaborators before we were friends; over the last decade I’ve written two plays about him, two collections of poetry, and a libretto.
Ours has been a peculiar collaboration in that Paul has unreservedly shared his wartime experiences with me, including the raw material of his audio and video recordings, but he hasn’t seen or read most of what I’ve written. We both prefer it that way. I don’t risk disappointing him, and he doesn’t risk being retraumatized by his memories of war.
The transformative trauma in Paul’s career occurred in October of 1993 when he was among a handful of Western reporters remaining in Somalia. As he focused his camera on the desecrated body of a US Army Ranger in the streets of Mogadishu, he heard the voice of the dead man speak to him: “If you do this, I will own you forever.” He took the picture.
The image circled the globe, influenced the US withdrawal from Somalia, and, in Paul’s opinion, emboldened a nascent Al-Qaeda with the lesson that publicity of an atrocity can topple a world power and alter the course of history. This photo won Paul the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography several months later. He wasn’t proud of himself; he was haunted. He suspected that by documenting the desecration he had taken part in it. He believed that the voice he heard was threatening him, and he has feared some kind of cosmic, existential retribution ever since.
Over the years, Paul and I have talked a lot about why he chose his profession. His father was in the Canadian Armed Forces, stormed the beach at Normandy, came home and died of polycystic kidney disease. Paul grew up wanting to be a soldier like his father, but he’d been born with a deformed hand. In his 2007 memoir Where War Lives he characterizes himself as a “combat tourist” and “adrenalin junkie” at the start of his career. “Surviving when so many others died was a rush,” he wrote, “like what a chronic gambler feels when a slot machine pays off big and a room full of losers stare daggers.” But inevitably and swiftly the thrill of war was subsumed by its horror.
Not long after the events in Mogadishu, Paul began to manifest symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and sought treatment from a psychiatrist in Johannesburg, where he was stationed as the Africa bureau chief for the Toronto Star. As someone who has been in and out of therapy for much of my adult life, I assumed that Paul had continued with his treatment for months if not years, but at some point in our collaboration he clarified that he’d seen this psychiatrist in South Africa “maybe five or six times.” He did receive a prescription for medication from him, and to this day he maintains a pharmacological form of treatment for his PTSD.
Why didn’t he commit to more intensive and prolonged treatment? He was succumbing to the common conception of mental illness as a moral weakness, a stigma even more onerous in his line of work. The fact of his diagnosis, he believed, had to be kept secret, and maintaining a regiment of regular in-person therapy would have been impractical and likely conspicuous. According to Paul, any war reporter with known psychological infirmities will be perceived as a danger in the field to those around them—fixers, interpreters, colleagues.
That said, most reporters don’t claim to be traumatized by their experiences of war, at least not in any clinical sense. The psychiatrist Anthony Feinstein in Journalists under Fire: The Psychological Hazards of Covering War estimates that only about 20 percent of combat journalists suffer from PTSD, which would of course be an unacceptably high percentage in almost any other occupation. But Paul wonders how many of these journalists are lying (or lying to themselves) when they deny symptoms of the disorder.
He wonders because the encounter with trauma is inescapable; by definition the war reporter seeks out trauma. And what compelled Paul to return to conflict, time and again, was his anger and his empathy: anger at the lies and hypocrisy of those who wage war, and empathy for those who suffer the worst of war’s consequences. He believed it was his job as a journalist to empathize drastically with the struggles of those whose stories they tell, and to use his skills to instill this same empathic recognition in readers, listeners, viewers.
This is how it was for me; as I got to know Paul, as I grew to understand the human being who stood in the midst of the appalling images he captured with his camera, who sat with the refugees and the resistance fighters whose stories he recorded, the subjects of journalism in a broad sense came to life. I felt a greater measure of responsibility regarding these conflicts, felt capable of taking action—whatever actions my circumstances and talents might allow. In this way empathy ripples out from the cold hard fact of trauma.
Empathy has a cost, of course. To bear witness is to share the burden of suffering. Years into our collaboration I suggested to Paul that the voice he heard that day in Mogadishu—“If you do this, I will own you forever”—was perhaps not so much threatening him as announcing his new reality: He was fundamentally changed by what he had witnessed and documented, and he would forever bear the responsibility to honor his haunting with the integrity of his ongoing work.
And it is necessary work, as we are reminded by the Ukraine war. We live in an age in which the motivations and methods of the press are often questioned if not outright condemned. Journalists are fallible, yes, capitalism skews and distorts and skepticism is healthy, but without synthesized, contextualized, factual and empathic news from the front lines, a culture remains ignorant, apathetic, cruel—and prone to more war.
I mentioned that Paul and I are friends, but we don’t talk much these days. We’ve both been moving on, I suppose. He wrote a well-received history book, published a few years ago; I’ve recently published a poetry collection that has nothing to do with him. I live in Los Angeles, he lives in Vancouver. We email only once in a while (though we haven’t stopped signing those emails with “Love”).
When I was undergoing treatment for stage 4 colon cancer in 2016, messages from Paul gave me comfort and courage, and I often found myself considering my medical struggles in light of his psychological struggles, and the myriad struggles of those he wrote about. But our correspondence is dwindling. He’s dealing with stage 4 kidney disease. He meditates now. He volunteers at a local hospice.
When I emailed that I was writing something about him and the mental health of war reporters, I wasn’t sure he’d respond quickly, or at all. But he wrote back within minutes. He would write more “overnight”—he doesn’t sleep well, due to nightmares in which he says he is “usually running from someone or something”—but regarding Ukraine he had only this to share: “As always, the lies and hypocrisy pain me as much as the killing.”
This is the core value of journalism, it seems to me, as it is of vital storytelling of any kind: to speak the truth in the face of lies, especially when facts are suppressed, when propaganda fogs the picture and floods the story. In my response to Paul’s response, I asked him what he thought would happen in Ukraine—How will the war end? Will it escalate and spread?—but he hasn’t written back. Perhaps he doesn’t have the answers anymore, or he doesn’t want to have them.
The answers will come from the reporters who are there now, in Ukraine but in every war zone. These brave journalists are changed—“owned,” if you will—by the trauma they witness as they pass along their empathy, and the potential for action, to us.