Michael Ware: An Australian Journalist’s Battle with War

A Brisbane native, Michael Ware gained local attention while working for the Courier Mail during the mid 90’s with a series of articles that led to a formal investigation into police mishandling evidence of a paedophile ring.  From there, he covered the conflict in East Timor, quickly gaining recognition for his tenacity and ability to report the war in a way that few Western Journalists could.   Michael began his career in the Middle East as Time Magazine’s correspondent in Afghanistan just months after the attacks of 9/11.  By 2003, Michael headed to Baghdad where he wrote numerous articles detailing the war and was soon appointed Bureau Chief for CNN.

During his seven years in the midst of the Iraq conflict, trying to help audiences make sense of the war, Michael sought out the organisation behind the baffling suicide bombings which had broken out across Baghdad.  Reporting the mastermind behind the bombings to be Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whose organisation would later be known as ISIS.

Narrowly escaping a beheading, filming the aftermath of suicide bombings and experiencing the loss of friends and colleagues were commonplace during his time in the Middle East; upon his homecoming, Michael said: “As for so many soldiers, the homecoming can be so much harder than the war itself”.

In 2012, Michael wrote a piece on post-traumatic stress disorder and started work on a feature film about his time in the war zone.  The feature-length documentary, Only the Dead was released in 2015 to critical acclaim.  MyCityLife spoke with Michael Ware to discuss his origins in Brisbane, time in the Middle East and his first of its kind documentary.

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Tell us about your years in Brisbane and how they influenced who you are and the experiences you’ve gained.
I’m just a guy who somehow fell in the middle of history. To this day, I still have to pinch myself. A guy from the back blocks of Brisbane to be present and amongst the biggest American war of our generation, with a front row ticket to history is kind of overwhelming for me to think about.

Were your family surprised when you became a conflict correspondent?
My family certainly was! My father worked for all of his life at Queensland Newspapers and my mum was at home for most of my life before she eventually ended up working there too. Not for one moment in my youth did I ever really think about being a journalist and I didn’t set out to become one. At university, I studied law and political science. So it was almost by accident that I came to be a journalist. As a young man, my real passion was rugby. I was very fortunate enough to have won three caps playing for Queensland Reds. Of course the best 5 seconds of my life!

That level of fitness must have been useful in the Middle East?
I actually had a car accident when I was playing Rugby and I suspect if it were not for that accident, I would have never ended up becoming a journalist and certainly wouldn’t end up being in the midst of the Iraq war. It’s funny how your life can turn on the strangest of things.

East Timor was your first real danger zone. What kind of apprenticeship did that offer you in terms of travel and conflict?
A lot of great Australian journalists covered the East Timor conflict when it really was dangerous. By the time I got there, it was very late in the story. The Australian forces had longed arrived and it was relatively peaceful. I was sent up there for 3 weeks to relieve a journalist who was going home for the Christmas holidays and I ended up staying for 5 months. It was my first exposure to the international press corp. From then on, there was nothing else I wanted to do.  It was enough to give me a lifelong appetite. Once I returned from East Timor, I went looking for a way to continue telling these foreign stories on a world stage. I was really lucky to be picked up by TIME Magazine when it still had an office in Sydney. So I started running around the south pacific and south-east Asia for TIME magazine. Timor was where it all began.

You didn’t hesitate then to go to Afghanistan for the search of Al-Qaeda and then later to Iraq…
Like so many other people, my life fundamentally changed forever after 9/11.   It was 9/11 that transformed my career. That’s why I was sent to Afghanistan by TIME magazine. In a strange kind of a way I never really came back home after that – not until just a few years ago. It was almost a decade since 9/11 happened that I lived, breathed and reported our modern war. When I arrived in Afghanistan and again, I was there for 3 weeks to relieve a senior journalist for TIME magazine and that 3 weeks led to 13 months. When I arrived the TIME magazine bosses in New York didn’t even know who I was. By the end of that when it was time for people go to the Iraq war, I was the first journalist that TIME Magazine sent.

You had earned your stripes.
It was in Afghanistan that I really learned and sharpened my craft as a war journalist. So that when I arrived in Iraq I was still relatively inexperienced and there were people around me were legends in this business. I still remained a relative newcomer during the invasion but again I just stayed and stayed and somehow, for some reason I was able to find the stories and gain access to people that no-one else was able to tell and no-one else was finding.

The connections you made in Iraq and information you uncovered on ISIS, led you to some dark situations that others would describe as hell.  What compelled to seek out these stories? You’ve been heard to say that you couldn’t help yourself.
That’s true. I mean, what people told me was a story and I felt that I could see parts of the story that were left being untold. I was driven to make sure that voices from Iraq that were not being heard were reaching the rest of the world. It was those people on the ground, soldiers, insurgents and Iraqi civilians – they needed to have their voices heard. And I felt the people back home needed to hear them. I felt driven to tell the story and keep telling it until I could see the story was starting to reveal its end. Until I felt the story, as far as my role in it, was coming to an end. And that’s when realised I would finally be able to leave. The other thing that drove me ultimately was my Iraqi family – the Iraqi’s that worked with me. We went through so much together. Some of them were kidnapped and tortured for me. One of them was killed. They all suffered in one way or another helping me bring the story back to the world. I didn’t feel like I could walk away from them. It felt like I would be abandoning them. Those are the things that kept me there and those were the forces that were driving me. It got to a certain point where the war in Iraq became my normal and where I felt most at home. It was when I returned to the West that I would feel the most uncomfortable…like I was jumping out of my skin.

You completed the equivalent of 7 tours and while there are post-traumatic stress organisations for soldiers is there anything available to journalists? How do you guys cope?
Not quite so much. I had to deal with my post-war issues, almost on my own, finding help myself. There was very little support structure that existed at that time for journalists. Like so many of our veterans often the homecoming is harder than the war itself. You have to fight to reclaim your life and really work to get your life back. It took me some time to realise and achieve that. I know I’m now in a much better place where once more I know that I have in fact arrived back home. That doesn’t mean things will ever be the same again, that doesn’t mean I’m the same person and that life is the same. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The film that you have created with Gutentag is really gritty and visceral. Did that help you? Was it part of the process of dealing with what you’ve seen?
It did help, in some ways it was cathartic. It both helped and in some ways it hurt. There were days where I just couldn’t keep sitting there in the edit suite. But those days became fewer and rarer. By the end of the process, I think it has been very positive for me. It has enabled me to go through a lot of emotions and events that had been waiting for me. And it’s also allowed me to process some of these stories. In the end, it has been a very positive film. And I know this film is one of the most intense things you will see in a cinema. This is not a film that you’ll just watch. My hope is that this is a film that you experience and that you as an audience can feel what it was like be in that war. And I hope that it brings with it a greater understanding.

You’ve got a son. If he comes to you in a few years’ time and says he wants to be a war correspondent. What would you say to him?
I’ve already told him that I will break his legs. I want my son to have his own dreams and to be able to follow them. And I like to think no matter what he wants I would support them. If it turned out that that was his dream, I think it would give me a very heavy heart.   

To watch Only The Dead full documentary here.

Photographer: NOOR Images

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