'A Private War' lays bare a journalist's life

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It’s not my family/ In your head, in your head, they are fighting/ With their tanks, and their bombs/ And their bombs, and their guns/ In your head, in your head they are crying.”

— From “Zombie,” by the Cranberries

Marie Colvin, the acclaimed international war correspondent for The Sunday Times in London, lived a frenetic life, squeezed into a narrow space between sanity and madness.

That was made clear in the 2018 biographical account of her life, “A Private War,” in which the Yale-educated native of Long Island’s North Shore hurried from one war zone to the next, reporting on the worst of humanity, again and again. This hard-bitten reporter, who was raised by two schoolteachers in East Norwich, in the Town of Oyster Bay, seemed at once out of place amid the chaos of war and utterly in her element.

Rosamund Pike, who was magnificent in “Hostiles,” plays Colvin to near-perfection. Even Cathleen “Cat” Colvin, Marie’s sister, has said so.

“A Private War” will be shown at Stony Brook University’s Staller Center for the Arts, in partnership with the SBU School of Journalism and the Press Club of Long Island, on Feb. 22 at 7 p.m. The film’s director, Matthew Heineman, will be on hand to answer questions. For ticket information, go to bit.ly/2RR9NY9.

The film speaks to the strained dichotomy that was Marie Colvin’s life. She had a fierce public persona. She was tough, driven, relentless and seemingly fearless, even when bullets and mortars rained down on her. At times she appeared, at least in the film, so focused on finding the heart of the story, on reaching the center of it and wrapping her head around it, that she became borderline reckless.

When others around her — colleagues, friends, military officers — told her, even ordered her, to stand down for her safety and that of her photographer, she would not relent. She pushed ever forward into those nightmarish places where most journalists will not venture — where humanity’s most evil acts of violence are perpetrated.

Privately, though, Colvin was torn apart psychically by the images of death and destruction she had seen. She was haunted by nightmares. She was a chain-smoker. Alcohol was her escape.

Colvin covered many of the world’s hot spots — West Beirut, East Timor, Iraq, Libya, Syria. She died in 2012, at age 56, amid the rubble of Homs, Syria, in a rocket attack launched by the Syrian army, which President Bashar al-Assad controls. He is a merciless tyrant who has bombed the hell out of his own people, including with chemical agents, in a civil war that has left the country a shell of its former self.

According to NPR, Syrian Maj. Gen. Rafik Shahadah directed his intelligence apparatus to find the grimy, makeshift media center from which Colvin and a handful of other journalists were reporting in the middle of Homs, and ordered its bombing. A witness later reported that Shahadah had said, “Marie Colvin was a dog and now she’s dead. Let the Americans help her now.”

Last month, the Colvin family won a $302 million lawsuit in a U.S. court against the Syrian government. It was a largely symbolic victory. Don’t expect Syria to pay up.

Like most reporters, Colvin was motivated, in part, by the need to stay ahead of the competition — for “scoops” — and, yes, she craved the adrenaline rush of war reporting. More so, however, she wanted to tell the stories of the innocents caught up in war — the individual citizens who are so often referred to by government officials as “collateral damage.” For Colvin, they were not statistics. They were people, with ambitions and dreams. They mattered. “A Private War” shows the extent to which she cared. She wanted to give a “voice to the voiceless.”

That desire, that need, to tell the victims’ stories came at great personal expense. In 2001, at age 44, Colvin lost her left eye in Sri Lanka, when the Sri Lankan army fired a rocket-propelled grenade at her, even after she had raised her hands in surrender and identified herself as a journalist. She was covering the army’s attempt to squelch an 18-year rebel insurgency. The Sri Lankan government claimed that Colvin didn’t have the required permit to report from territories held by the Tamil Tiger rebels. More than 63,000 people had died in the fight between the government and the Tamil minority.

According to the film, Colvin wanted to have children, but never did. She married and divorced the same man twice. Her second husband, a fellow war correspondent, took his own life in 2002. “Maybe I would have liked a more normal life,” she said. “Maybe I just don’t know how.”

Colvin was inducted into the Press Club of Long Island’s Hall of Fame in 2016. I can think of no one more deserving of the honor.

Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.