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February 22, 2012
Two More Journalists Have Died in Syria
When the news came this morning, at the beginning of Prime Minister's Questions in the British Parliament, (C-SPAN2, every Wednesday at 7 A.M., EST), that an American journalist working for the Sunday Times of London and a French photojournalist had been killed in the fighting in Syria, it was impossible not to think of the death in 2003 of The Atlantic's Michael Kelly.
Whenever an American reporter dies covering a war, I think of Kelly. He was, almost certainly, the best American print journalist of his generation. Kelly's specialty was politics. But he had covered the first Iraq War; and, when the second one started, he couldn't stay away.
Kelly -- he was 47 when he died -- hated Saddam Hussein and his regime. Kelly wrote: "[t]yranny truly is a horror: an immense, endlessly bloody, endlessly painful, endlessly varied, endless crime against not humanity in the abstract but a lot of humans in the flesh. It is, as Orwell wrote, a jackboot forever stomping on a human face."
He continued: "I understand why some dislike the idea, and fear the ramifications of, America as a liberator. But I do not understand why they do not see that anything is better than life with your face under the boot. And that any rescue of people under the boot (be they Afghan, Kuwaiti or Iraqi) is something to be desired. Even if the rescue is less than perfectly realized. Even if the rescuer is a great, overmuscled, bossy, selfish oaf. Or would you, for yourself, choose the boot?"
Today, of course, after eleven years of war, one reads that differently. At the same time, with Saddam gone, one thinks of Syria's Bashir Assad, Iran or perhaps the late Muammar Gaddafi. For human tyranny is an endlessly renewable resource.
In 2003, Michael Kelly wanted to see the end of Saddam. Instead Kelly died covering the war, as Baghdad fell. The Humvee in which he was riding swerved to escape enemy fire and ended up in an irrigation canal.
Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik were killed by a Syrian rocket attack. It
appears that the Syrian Army deliberately targeted the press compound in which they and other journalists were working.
Michael Kelly got a book out of the First Iraq War called Martyrs' Day: Chronicle of Small War (1993). But the book I take down when an American correspondent dies in a combat zone is Kelly's second one, Things Worth Fighting For. It's a collection of his best stuff and features a fine introduction by Ted Koppel. T he former Nightline anchor knew Kelly and also covered the same wars he did.
I thumb through the book a bit. I re-read the clippings I keep in the back of eulogies of Kelly by fellow journalists. Then I put Michael Kelly's book back where I can find it -- because I know I'll need it again.
Perhaps war correspondents should have the same motto which trial lawyers do:
Sometimes you get the bear.
Sometimes the bear gets you.
Here, via the Associated Press, is the text of Marie Colvin's last report -- which will air on the BBC tonight.
Some will say a war correspondent's death doesn't matter. Surely, so many more human beings besides Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik died in Syria in the last 24 hours. Why should we care about their "witness?"
Did they die -- like the 20 Americans who've died so far this month in Afghanistan did -- for their country?
Did they die for something?
Colvin -- who lost an eye to shrapnel (again, she believed she was deliberately targeted) covering the Sri Lanka civil war -- believed the danger of the job was beside the point. She had an exalted sense of the journalist's trade. Here, for example, Colvin speaks to a November, 2010 memorial service in London for journalists, cameramen and support staff killed in covering conflicts.
In her remarks, Marie Colvin certainly recognizes the romance of what she did. But she believed the larger truth, too: that the information war correspondents bring back is essential for the functioning of our republic. And she knew, too, that sometimes the cost of getting that information is blood.
When that happens, even when they don't die, journalists themselves become the story. I'm quite sure that's the last thing that Marie Colvin - or Michael Kelly - every wanted.
According to its website, the deadline for nominations for the 2012 Michael Kelly Award expired on February 3. The Kelly Award was established by the Atlantic Media Company in 2004 to honor its late editor's legacy. It seeks to further "the fearless pursuit and expression of truth." To be entered, a journalist's work must be published in a U.S.-based outlet.
That disqualifies Colvin, too, because her work appeared in UK outlets. And that's too bad because Marie Colvin, American, would make a fine Michael Kelly Award honoree this year.
It's especially unfortunate because the Kelly Award's first recipient was Anthony Shadid of the New York Times. Anthony Shadid, born in Oklahoma City of Lebanese ancestry, died in Syria last week while covering the same conflict which has now claimed the lives of Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik.
Shadid also won the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting in 2004 and 2010.
As his website demonstrates, Shadid didn't just write about wars and political conflict -- although that certainly was the subject of his reporting. His latest book, House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family and a Lost Middle East, is about restoring his family's ancestral home in Lebanon. It will be published on February 28 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
At the time of their deaths, Shadid was 43, Marie Colvin was 55 and Remi Ochlik was 28.
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