At some point in his service as a war correspondent in Iraq Michael Ware crossed a line. In his documentary Only the Dead, which screened at the Palace Centro in Brisbane on Monday 26 October 2015, he goes looking for it.
Ware was working for Time magazine when he arrived in Iraq just before the 2003 invasion where this story begins. He was there for seven years, reporting for CNN from 2006. Through the personal footage he shot on a handycam, we get to go along for the ride. It’s a bumpy, brutal journey and a rare personal insight into the daily grind of being a war correspondent.
The tapes were never intended for publication – they were just Ware’s more convenient alternative to a notepad and pen to help him record what was going on around him.
It was only when he went through the tapes – thrown into a container under the bed each time he returned to his mother’s in Brisbane – that he realised there might be a narrative in them.
Ware is a local boy, an alumnus of the Courier-Mail newspaper and the Queensland Reds rugby club, so he was among friends on Monday night, which only added to the air of sitting in someone’s living room watching their home movies.
It’s a quality that puts the viewer right in the middle of the action alongside Ware and his colleagues as they navigate the increasing confusion and violence that follows the first suicide car bomb attack in Baghdad.
Like any good reporter Ware goes looking for the truth, seeking out the other side in the conflict through the old fashioned skills of establishing contacts, building trust and asking questions.
His painstaking efforts lead to a ghastly payoff when the first beheading videos are handed to him by the insurgents he’s been courting. They wanted their atrocities shown to the outside world and saw Ware as the vehicle. As a journalist it was Ware’s job to report this. But he also knew he was being used as a messenger by the men of terror. Was that the line?
Any journalist with an ounce of self-awareness, and Ware isn’t lacking in self-awareness, must occasionally ponder the implications of the Observer Effect, a well-known phenomenon in which behaviour is altered by the act of being witnessed.
Of course Ware bears no responsibility for that or any of the other atrocities he documented, but the psychological effect of his own wondering must be an enormous burden.
Adding to the load is the reprieve from his own beheading, thanks to those very same contacts he so carefully cultivated. They persuade his would-be killers to let him go, but not before Ware is positioned, as he’d seen so many on film positioned before him, waiting for the grab of his hair that never comes.
Was that the line? In a situation where death has become the norm, the surviving must be very hard.
Wherever the line was, Ware identifies the moment he realises that somewhere back there it was definitely crossed – in a terrifying sequence in the film. In Fallujah, unarmed and without night vision, he follows a soldier into the black heart of a house where half a dozen enemy gunmen are waiting.
In that house, in that dark lonely moment, Ware realised that he no longer cared about dying.
His desensitisation to death is graphically depicted in the disturbing, drawn-out final sequence of the film. A young Iraqi lies dying while the US soldiers who shot him do nothing and Ware keeps on filming, getting up close to capture every painful shuddering blood-choked breath, right up to the last.
In his commentary Ware acknowledges that a simple clearing of his own throat would probably have been sufficient to spur the soldiers into providing the medical attention the boy needed.
But he stays silent, gone too far upriver now to see the line when it’s finally well and truly visible. It’s the moment when, as observer, he might have had an effect if he’d chosen to. It’s unbearable to watch. It must be so much worse to live with.
Ware readily admits in the film and in subsequent interviews that he is struggling with these demons, the ones that lurk in the dark chambers of the heart. And we can only sit with him awhile in the darkness and hope that someday his own personal war is indeed going to end.
“A soldier once wrote that there are certain dark chambers of the heart that once opened can never be closed again. And when you’re living that human experience in war, which is stretched to its extreme, you start to find these places within your own self.” – Michael Ware, Only the Dead