Marie Colvin: “Despite all the videos you see [from governments] and all the sanitised language… the scene on the ground has remained remarkably the same for hundreds of years. Craters. Burned houses. Mutilated bodies. Women weeping for children and husbands. Men for their wives, mothers, children.”*
Don McCullin: “War is partly madness, mostly insanity and the rest of it is schizophrenia.”
UK Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson: “Brexit has brought us to a great moment in our history. A moment when we must strengthen our global presence, enhance our lethality and increase our mass…” and be willing to take military action and able to deploy “hard power”.**
While the ‘War’ Secretary flexes our national muscles, anti-war rhetoric is headlining in cinemas and art galleries. And I for one welcome it with open arms because it is coming from people who have experienced war first hand.
Seven years ago, on 22nd February 2012, Marie Colvin, one of the most celebrated war correspondents of our time, was killed while covering the Siege of Homs in Syria. The recently released film A Private War is a powerful homage to her and the relentless bravery she displayed at the frontlines of the world’s most dangerous conflicts in order “to bear witness” to the human suffering. Easily recognisable by her trademark black eyepatch, American-born Colvin worked for The Sunday Times for more than 25 years. By the time she died aged 56, she had probably seen more war than most soldiers.
Between 1966 and 1984, Don McCullin worked as the eyes of The Sunday Times Magazine. Covering “a-war-a-year” he became the world’s most famous war photographer. Now 83, the extended range of his vast body of work is viewable in a retrospective at Tate Britain. His former editor, Harold Evans, describes the focus of his images: “His entire canon of photography is to de-legitimise violence. These are the consequences of your political decisions… of your greed… of your carelessness. Look at these and think again.”
Both Colvin and McCullin became war junkies. Not interested in the politics, strategy or weaponry, they wanted to show the true cost of war. Both gave human faces to the conflicts they were covering to make us care about the victims, the collateral damage. Both succeeded but each suffered varying degrees of PTSD and had to live with minds contaminated by the ghosts of horror. Unsurprisingly, they were passionately anti-war and violence. Yet in spite of the personal cost, both were driven to keep returning.
Colvin’s reason: “Someone has to go there to see what is happening… Our mission is to speak the truth to power… These are not just numbers. I want to tell the stories of each person… to give voice to the voiceless.”
McCullin’s reason: “You cannot just look away.”
I recognise the strangely addictive nature of warfare in all its complexity and contradictions. It has also held me in its clasp for the past ten years as I researched and wrote my book on WW2. I was of course engaging with it on my desktop or in an armchair with plumped up cushions – no bravery in that. At times I wondered how healthy it was to keep time-travelling to the worst war zones of the 20th Century. After all, life is good in the here and now. But I’ve long felt compelled to explore the darkest corridors of the human psyche. The depths where violence, cruelty and killing reside in the walls waiting to be mined like coal, brought to the surface and processed into forms that can wreak havoc in the daylight of everyday lives. For that is where war starts.
Most of us have no real or visceral concept of war. Yet these two brilliant people knew the importance of looking at it in the face. Of not allowing it to become abstract, political or geographically distant. “I feel that we’ve failed if we don’t face what war does,” Colvin said, “if we don’t face the human horrors and tell people what really happens when all sides try to obscure the truth.”
With the escalation of extremism and widespread far right movements, Colvin and McCullin’s work offer us an opportunity to look into the wide and vacant eyes of trauma, at the crumpled, tear-stained faces of grief and the distorted, blood splattered bodies of agony. These are the characteristics of all wars, everywhere. And yet still power refuses to listen to truth and vast chunks of governments’ budgets are invested in manufacturing, selling or buying the instruments of killing and destruction.
Just imagine if we invested as much into the instruments of peace and creation…
Some further links:
*November 2010, speech by Marie Colvin on the importance of war reporting at St Bride’s church, Fleet Street, London: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/feb/22/marie-colvin-our-mission-is-to-speak-truth
Guardian obituary to Marie Colvin: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2012/feb/22/marie-colvin
Storyville. Under the wire: https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m0002k62/storyville-under-the-wire
McCullin – a film by Jacqui Morris e David Morris – YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n-r0IjB44KY
McCullin at Tate Britain: https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/don-mccullin