A new book chronicles the life and death of journalist Marie Colvin.

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Book review

On a short assignment in Libya in the fall of 2011, I caught a glimpse of foreign correspondent Marie Colvin at the Radisson hotel in Tripoli. I noticed the black patch on her left eye first. But there was something more that made me pause. The previous month, rebels seized the capital from the forces of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, and journalists had turned the hotel into a kind of media center. Anvil cases of broadcasting equipment clogged the corridors; correspondents and crews hustled from room to room writing dispatches and doing TV live shots. In that adrenaline-charged atmosphere, Colvin seemed like her own force field, radiating energy but centered, as if she just belonged there.

After three decades of reporting on all of the major conflicts of our time — Afghanistan, the Middle East, Iraq, Lebanon, Bosnia, Sri Lanka, Libya, Chechnya — Colvin was at home in war zones, but she knew there was a price to pay in physical hardship and her personal relationships for a life chronicling human suffering. Five months later, at age 56, she died in an artillery attack in Homs, Syria — deliberately targeted, her family and fellow journalists say, by the Syrian military.

As Colvin said once, at a service honoring journalists and staff killed in war zones: “Many of you here must have asked yourselves, or be asking yourselves now, is it worth the cost in lives, heartbreak, loss? Can we really make a difference? I faced that question when I was injured. In fact one paper ran a headline saying, has Marie Colvin gone too far this time? My answer then, and now, was that it is worth it.”

In this magnificent and moving biography, “In Extremis,” Lindsey Hilsum, international editor for Channel 4 News in Britain, captures the clashing extremes of Colvin’s life: a disciplined journalist who often missed deadlines; a woman of extraordinary courage tortured by personal insecurity; a role model for aspiring journalists who, when the assignment was over, often drank herself into a stupor. This is not a hagiography.

Hilsum, who has covered wars and conflicts in the Middle East, the former Soviet Union and Africa, has her own experience in hot spots to give the book her perfect pitch. “I knew [Colvin] in that easy way you know someone with whom you share adventures and the exhilaration of survival,” Hilsum writes, “when the bomb goes off just after you leave, or hits the empty building down the road, missing you by a few yards or minutes.”

Hilsum drew on a variety of sources to create her portrait: Colvin’s articles for the Sunday Times of London, emails, faxes, interviews with her by other journalists, books by other journalists, her own interviews with more than 100 people who knew or encountered Colvin, and — most important — more than 300 journals Colvin kept from 1969, when she was 13, until January 2012, a month before she was killed.

The journals mixed reporting notes from events that Colvin covered and personal diary entries. Hilsum seeks to understand the facts and feelings that drove Colvin in her work and her life; for her, there was no bright line separating the two. “If you go in bare and eat what they eat, drink what they drink, sleep where they sleep,” Colvin once wrote, “there is less separation.”

She did not write about herself, Hilsum says, “but her journalism would be distinguished by the intensity of her personal experience.”

As a young girl, Colvin was “on the hunt for causes,” Hilsum writes. She was born in Queens and grew up in Oyster Bay, Long Island, one of five children in a “lace curtain” Irish American family. Life in suburbia was the last thing Colvin wanted; her parents, however, were socially conscious and protested the Vietnam War. Her mother was trained as a teacher; her father, Bill, was a high-school English teacher with an unfulfilled dream of becoming a journalist. He died of cancer at age 50. Colvin, then 21, was grief-stricken, but she had learned a lesson, she wrote in her journal: “LIFE IS TOO SHORT.”

“There’s so much I wanted to show him — prove myself to him,” she wrote. “Somehow, he was and is still my standard. I did everything to make him proud.”

Hilsum calls his death a turning point for Colvin: “She realized that she didn’t just want to become a journalist; she had to.”

A course in nonfiction writing at Yale taught by John Hersey, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, changed her life. One of Hersey’s most famous works, “Hiroshima,” a nonfiction account of the atomic bombing of that city, originally published in The New Yorker, describes in searing detail the lives of six people on the ground the day the bomb was dropped.

Years later, after serving as UPI Paris bureau chief and then star correspondent for the Sunday Times of London, Colvin reflected: “It has always seemed to me that what I write about is humanity in extremis, pushed to the unendurable, and that it is important to tell people what really happens in wars.”

Colvin also chronicled the strong men who waged those wars, providing some of the earliest — and unique — reporting on Gadhafi. Hilsum captures some of the absurdity of Colvin’s encounters with him: “She noticed that [Gadhafi] was wearing French cologne. At the end of the interview, during which he said he was ready to hit U.S. targets anywhere in the world and described the conflict between the United States and Libya as being like the Crusades, he put his hand on her thigh and asked as if he could see her again, as if this were a date. ‘Why don’t you call me?’ Marie said.”

Colvin’s personal life was a war zone as well. She was married twice, was deceived by both husbands, had several long-term affairs, felt no compunctions about one-night stands. She suffered miscarriages and never was able to have a child. Her mother once told one of Colvin’s suitors, “My daughter is unmarriageable.”

War zones can repulse — and attract. There is no rest in a war zone; reporting demands an inexhaustible supply of adrenaline. Emotions are more intense. For some war correspondents it becomes a drug, an addiction that destroys marriages. Describing Colvin’s relationship with her second husband, Juan Carlos Gumucio, Hilsum writes, “Their love had flourished in a time of conflict, where the nearness of death made them love life.” Colvin knew she was torn: “What is this hardness in me? This falseness?” she asks in her journal. “I so want to love. But in love and alone I feel lonely. I want him there and I hate that feeling. In love, with him there, I get claustrophobic. I want out after the first rush.”

Colvin deadened her fear with alcohol, and her addiction deepened with every war zone, every lover. “Nobody’s supposed to be afraid — if you’ve been in the most terrifying situations you don’t talk about it,” she once told an interviewer. “Our support system is you go to the bar and have a drink and make some black jokes.”

“In Extremis” painfully chronicles Colvin’s spiral into depression. She eventually was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and some treatment helped, but she was never treated for alcoholism. As Hilsum vividly explains, “She could not unsee what she had seen, and he [a colleague] feared she was losing her ability to distance herself from horror.”

The sad irony was that Colvin’s editors believed it was precisely her passionate, on-the-edge reporting, for which she sacrificed personal peace and risked her life, that sold more papers. Eight years before she was killed, the executive editor at the Sunday Times suggested she stop reporting from war zones, return to London and become a columnist. She began seeing a psychiatrist and seemed on a path to recovery, yet she was consumed with anxiety and self-doubt. She went back to drinking and to war zones — Afghanistan, Libya, Syria.

Colvin, Hilsum says, “was easy to love and hard to help.”

She was wounded in Sri Lanka, covering the war of secession by the Tamil Tigers. Her report in the Sunday Times, quoted in this book, depicts that terrifying moment when a soldier opened fire straight at her: “We were running through the last dark field for the line of jungle ahead when the silence was broken by the thunder of automatic weapons fire about 100 yards to the right. I dived down and began crawling, belly on the ground, for some cover. For a few minutes, someone was crawling on top of me — protection or panic, I don’t know. Then I was alone, behind weeds. … Bursts of gunfire began across the road about half a mile away. The search and destroy patrols had come out. I heard soldiers on the road, talking and laughing. One fired a burst from an automatic weapon that scythed down the weeds in front of me and left me covered in green shoots. If I didn’t yell now, they would stumble on me and shoot. I began to shout ‘Journalist! Journalist! American! USA!'”

The rebels opened fire with a rocket-propelled grenade. A chest wound almost killed Colvin, and shrapnel hit her eye. The rebels rushed her to a hospital where doctors saved her life, but they could not save her eye.

In a speech, Colvin once said: “We always have to ask ourselves whether the level of risk is worth the story. What is bravery, and what is bravado?”

Reading this book is painful. I thought about her and about other war correspondents with whom I’ve worked. At the end of my brief assignments, I always went home. For them, something in that chaos, and pain, and horror, kept pulling them back.

I still don’t understand, not really. But Colvin saw it clearly:

“War reporting is still essentially the same — someone has to go there and see what is happening. You can’t get that information without going to places where people are being shot at, and others are shooting at you. The real difficulty is having enough faith in humanity to believe that enough people be they government, military, or the man on the street, will care when your file reaches the printed page, the website or the TV screen. We do have that faith because we believe we do make a difference.”


“In Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie Colvin” by Lindsey Hilsum,  Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 378 pp., $28