Australian journalist Michael Ware first left for Iraq in 2003 for a three-week reporting stint for Time magazine and CNN. After three weeks, his compulsion to report on the war led him to stay in Iraq for seven years. For his HBO documentary, Only the Dead See the End of War, Ware has culled footage from those seven years that he captured on his handheld camera. The result is often gruesome imagery of death and destruction, narrated by Ware. We witness footage of beheadings, car bombings, a man slowly dying as soldiers look on with striking apathy, and, ultimately, the birth and evolution of ISIS. All of this, Ware explains, is to bring outsiders closer to the experience and feelings of war. A feeling, he insists, outsiders will never truly understand but should confront.
We spoke with Ware about his own near-beheading, his relationship with death, and the current state of ISIS.
When you first arrived in Iraq, did you go in with a fear of death? And how long did it take for that fear to dissipate?
The minute you go to war you limit the fear of dying. Death is with you everywhere. Death sits with you constantly. The question is, how do you grapple with that? My problem is that I didn’t just go for one or two weeks, so I didn’t just fly in and fly out. I stayed and stayed and stayed for seven, continuous, endless years. So I got to the point where I was already dead. So it didn’t matter to me what happened. And in the end that became a strength in my reporting. I got to a point where I just didn’t care about dying because I was already dead inside.
When you’re spending time with the other journalists and soldiers in Iraq, did they share that same feeling? Or did you meet anyone that felt differently, that still carried some fear?
It was a very personal experience. The soldiers are in a kill-or-be-killed situation. You reduce yourself existentially as a fighter to a place where you are ready to die. Journalists, perhaps less so — particularly those TV journalists who flew in for a week and want to get their byline and “Oh, I’ve been to Baghdad,” then flew out — are very different from the soldiers and marines and those of us in the Baghdad press corps who actually lived in Baghdad. So there are many experiences of war and of your closeness to death.
You were close to being executed and at the same time filming it with your own video camera. So, by that point, what compels you to stay? How do you continue and continue to record and maintain that, I suppose, disconnect?