Michael Ware on ABC Radio in Brisbane [UPDATED]
Michael did a half-hour radio interview earlier today in Brisbane, and as always, his passion for his work came through loud and clear.
(I did this one myself, so all errors are mine, etc etc. As with any live discussion -- particularly with Michael when he gets fired up! -- I’ve had to do some judicious editing of the overlapping conversations and the hesitational hems and haws in order to make it intelligible, but I didn’t drop any comment of import. I’ve also added links for some of the Aussie terms he uses and specific earlier work of his that I have on the site. There are also the very occasional parenthetical clarifications in italics.)
MADONNA KING: If you've watched news reports about Iraq over the past eight years, you're probably familiar with Michael Ware. As a journalist for Time magazine and CNN, he's built a bit of a reputation for going where some other reporters fear to tread. So how does a boy from Brisbane end up in a war zone and what toll does something like that take? Michael Ware, good to talk to you from across the desk rather than from across a few oceans, dodging bullets.
MICHAEL WARE: Yes, it's rather a change.
KING: I bet it's rather a change. For those who may not know your background, how does someone from Brisbane end up a war reporter in Iraq?
WARE: I'm continually wondering that myself, to be perfectly honest.
KING: But what was it in you, and at what stage? I mean, we were young reporters together many, many years ago.
WARE: Yeah, I remember. I was just telling someone that this morning, I remember when we were in that dodgy newsroom at the Courier-Mail. Not that it's any less dodgy now.
KING: I had pigtails in my hair and you were no more sophisticated, remember?
WARE: Oh, absolutely not. I had just fallen out of the law. And yeah, I remember getting that phone call from the Courier-Mail way back then going, "Have you ever thought about being a journalist?" and I went, "No, not really." We said, "Let's try it for a year and see how it goes," and now look at me.
KING: So what was it in that year that made you think? Was it Iraq, was it reporting from a war zone, or was it something that you wanted to get away from?
WARE: To be honest, I just knew I didn't want to do the law, and I was setting off on the backpacking thing (a five-week trip through Vietnam and Cambodia). And there was a rather far-seeing or insightful Chief of Staff at the Courier-Mail -- Dennis Watt, who now runs the place -- who came and said, you know, "Would you like to have a go?" And honestly, it wasn't even in my mind.
KING: And so you said yes, and … have a go, what did have a go mean? To report from Iraq?
WARE: No, no, no, that was just to become a journalist. Full stop. And in fact it was quite cool, he said to me -- once I'd got the job as a third-year cadet [see here, item #10], remember those days? -- he said, "Would you like to be our war correspondent?" And I was very keen, I said, "Oh, fantastic!" And he said, "Wait, wait, I haven't told you which war yet." It was World War II, because that was the year of Australia Remembers , remember that? The 50th anniversary of the end of World War II.
And I have to admit, the six months I spent covering the Australia Remembers program to this day stands me in good stead. I mean, I went, literally, and interviewed hundreds of diggers, veterans.
KING: But was it that that made you think, "I'm unsatisfied, I actually want to get on a plane and go over there and report from a war zone?"
WARE: Um… my first touch with it, long before I even thought about journalism -- I mean, in high school I was hell-bent on becoming a lawyer -- but I remember the day in 1985 when the newspapers were full of the news of the death of this bloke I'd never heard of, an Australian by the name of Neil Davis. He was a Tazzy bloke [from Tasmania], a cameraman, I think he was working for the ABC at that point. Anyway, he went to Viet Nam in the mid-60s for a six-week stint and essentially never came home. And he died on the streets of Bangkok during one of those rather pissant coup d'etats that Thailand has as part of its political process. The great irony being that he'd survived Viet Nam, he'd survived Cambodia, and there as bureau chief in Bangkok--
KING: As a journalist?
WARE: As a journalist, as a cameraman -- dies in a nothing event on an afternoon in the streets of Bangkok. And that's -- his story stayed with me.
KING: And was it his story that got you on a plane or what got you on that plane out of Australia to Iraq?
WARE: Well, it all starts with Timor, to be honest. The guts of the Timor story had passed me by -- remember in 1999 with all that horrible violence and so forth, and the Aussies led the international task force. It was almost as an afterthought that, working back then for the Courier and then News Limited Group in Australia, I was sent in as sort of a last-minute relief person to cover the Christmas of December '99. I ended up staying five months in Timor. And I came home after INTERFET came home. And I went -- that was my first taste of a foreign story and secondly, it was my first brush with the international news community. And I went, "Oh, this is a bit of allright. They do this for a living?" And so I came home and told the then-editor of the Courier I wanted to keep doing that and he said, "Well, you know we have no place for that," and I said, "I know, that's why I'm telling you that I'm looking for something else," and I was lucky enough to be picked up by Time magazine, of all people.
KING: So you got to Iraq. Tell me--
WARE: Iraq itself -- by the time I got to Iraq -- well, this story begins, as so many tragic others do, with 9/11. I mean, as with so many others, my life has never been the same since 9/11. Since 9/11 I have lived war. And until recently, I didn't visit and I didn't do rotations and I didn't come and go. I lived -- and I will argue the toss with the Australian Tax Office, but I am still a resident of the Republic of Iraq.
KING: Why? Why?
WARE: Um… why…
KING: Is it the people? Is it that you think you--
WARE: No, it's the -- I mean, God bless my Iraqi brothers, or Allah, as the case may be. It's the--it's the fascination. I mean, it is just intellectually the most gripping thing that I have ever seen or imagined. Because after 9/11 I lived for a year in Afghanistan, and again, I went on a three-week relief stint and I stayed thirteen months, most of which was spent living in Kandahar -- the heartland of the Taliban, where they were born -- much of that period as the only Westerner still in the city because they had bombed the Red Cross and done this and done that, and I lived as an Afghan. So by the time the Iraq war came along, rather than just being a sub on the bench, at Time magazine I was the first cab off the rank and I was going to Iraq with bells on. And the Middle East had never been an area of particular concern of mine, I mean, I was absolutely focused on Indonesia and Southeast Asia. But it is incredible. It's worked out well on several levels. First and foremost, I've been given the privilege of having a front row ticket to history, watching firsthand as it unfolds before me.
KING: So tell us about that front row ticket. What do you see, what do you feel? Tell us about the Iraqis. Obviously your affinity with the Iraqi people is huge, it's enormous.
WARE: Yeah, it is, it is. And with the Afghans, too. And there've been a few wars sprinkled in-between, so sort of, you lose track. But I mean, in one sense -- there's two levels, I guess. In one sense, in war you see humanity stripped bare. I mean, that's kind of trite to say, but until you've seen it you have absolutely no idea. The sense of seeing a community in upheaval really gives you a sense of-- it sharpens your own awareness of what's important and what's not, let alone the near-death-experience kind of business. But seeing that-- and, I mean, to see how societies cope, to see how humans cope. I mean, seeing little kids still smiling and laughing and kicking a beat-up old can like a football in a refugee camp when they've lost everything and dad's missing, that never ceases to amaze me. To see good men do evil and to see evil men do good… I mean, it's life stripped bare.
And certainly once you're in that moment in combat when the lead's thick in the air, I mean, there's no room… there's no room whatsoever for--for-- I normally call it something else -- but for those little lies that we tell ourself each and every day. We all get up every morning and go through our day fudging a couple little things here and there, telling ourselves, "Oh, I'll do this" or "I can't do that." In those moments, you cannot hide from yourself. So it tells you about yourself, as well.
KING: When you say you learn things about yourself, what have you learned about yourself that you didn't know beforehand?
WARE: Well, I'm not sure I really want to inform the state on that, to be honest. But I mean, for example, in a unit you'll see -- it's almost like a caricature from every World War II movie. There's always the great big burly bloke carrying the M60 or the SAW, as they're called. He's the bravest and, you know, [American accent] "Come on, get some, get some!" Under heavy fire he might be the one who's curled up crying. But then the next day he's the one who charges the al Qaeda bunker, you know what I mean? There's no room -- I'm gonna say it -- there's no room for bullshit. I mean, all that stuff that pads our lives just is stripped bare and you find out exactly who you are: how brave, how not; how true, how not And what's important when you're sitting there waiting -- I mean, one time when I was grabbed by the bad boys, by al Qaeda, you know, I was making my peace. They were my last moments. No one can explain why I'm still here after that one. But I mean, when you've been there--
KING: When you were making your peace, what went through your head? You say you were making your peace.
WARE: Well, I really don't want to inform the people of Queensland what's going on inside--
KING: But everything's stripped bare, you think you're going to die. Does it matter that you're in a war zone, do you regret being there in the first place?
WARE: No, no…
KING: Or are you just living that couple of minutes?
WARE: Yeah, you haven't got time--
KING: This is when you were kidnapped, no doubt…
WARE: Yeah, one of the times.
KING: And your fixers have been kidnapped, too.
KING: How do you hold yourself together in a situation like that, or don't you?
WARE: Umm, as I'm now learning, you sort of-- you process things as you go, but you kind of don't. I mean, in relation to that one particular kidnap when al Qaeda grabbed me, I am very fortunate. I am the only Westerner to have been kidnapped by al Qaeda in Iraq who lived to tell the tale. And I say that -- that just rolls off my tongue, that phrase. And I've never stopped to think about what it actually -- I am the only Westerner to…
Before I left the States in December, I had to do a job for CNN where I went to Memphis to interview this fellow, an American contractor who'd been kidnapped in Iraq. I was there when he was kidnapped. And he was one of the few who actually got rescued. Now, he wasn't kidnapped by al Qaeda, he was kidnapped by criminals. But he was entombed in the ground for eleven months. They used to concrete over his thing [the underground cell], every three days they'd chip away at it, put food in, take something out [the bucket of waste], and concrete over it again. He survived eleven months like that. Anyway, he was then rescued.
We're sitting down, we're doing an interview, and the idea was from CNN, you know, kidnap victim interviews a kidnap victim. It was only afterwards when I read the transcript of our interview that I looked at the questions that I was asking, and I was saying, "Well, when they grabbed me on the street that day…" It was as if it was happening to another person.
WARE: And he went, "Near death--" I mean, "Out of body experience!" And I went, "Yeah, was it like that for you?" I had no idea it felt like that to me. And what that told me was that whilst I dealt with it at the time -- I mean, when I got home that morning, I went to my bedroom and I didn't leave it for three days. And then there was an attempt on my life at that point, so eventually I went and put America's 1st Infantry Division between me and the killers trying to get me. And it was through the Battle of Fallujah that I actually got over this. Every time I got in the car I had a sinking feeling that I wanted to throw up. So I dealt with it at the time and moved forward. But it's like I put the emotions away in a box, gaffer-taped them up and put them in the attic. And now I'm finding that the attic is absolutely choc-a-bloc full of gaffer-taped boxes.
KING: You hinted at the toll this takes on someone who's been in your situation.
WARE: It's not just in my situation, there are some kids going up in this stuff. I remember during the Iraqi civil war when they were butchering each other on the streets. Like the kids here in Toowong [a Brisbane suburb]: wake up in the morning, and they meet their mate on the street to kick a footy, and there's the next door neighbor's headless body. I mean, for goodness sakes. You know, and obviously it's silly to say that you're not the same person.
KING: You're not the same person.
WARE: Of course not, I mean, obviously. The depth to which you change and the fundamental nature of that change is breathtaking.
KING: Is there a level of regret that you put yourself through this?
WARE: Oh, hell no. Hell no. I regret that I put my family through it. The ones who really pay for this are those who love us, the poor fools.
KING: Because they don't know what's happening, they don't know if you're dead or alive.
WARE: Can you imagine? Nine years of just quietly wondering.
KING: Do they have rules, that you've got to call in or email every so often?
WARE: If they did I wouldn't follow them anyway. I mean, the war dictates that, not you. Certainly not anyone back here. So I mean… certainly from our perspective, from the Australian perspective, it's the journalists who go, and the diggers. You're never the same again. And certainly in my experience, you'll never come home. I mean, not home-home.
KING: Not to where you were before?
WARE: Nothing is ever the same. I mean, one of the hardest things is -- for me, for example, and I know from other soldiers' experiences -- is finding traction again back here.
KING: I was wondering, because we were just listening to the news together --
WARE: Nothing seems real.
KING: No, and we were listening to the news together and yet you weren't interested at all.
WARE: Oh, I'm totally oblivious, I mean --
KING: Because news isn't really news --
WARE: Well, I heard you talking about electricity bills, and all I could think about was, well, go and buy a goddamned generator, people. I mean, in Baghdad you get one hour of electricity a day. And you think Brisbane's hot? God damn, you have no idea. $240 bucks a year? Oh, grow up, people, come on. At least you've got electricity. That's the sort of way -- and I know that's wrong and it ignores a lot of just day-to-day realities. I mean, please. But I'm thinking about people who have got, say… preemie babies. And there's no hospital to take care of them. You should see the preemie ward in Baghdad Hospital. Please. And it's stinking hot, it gets to 52 degrees [152 degrees Fahrenheit]. And there's not a lick of electricity and there hasn't been for three days and you're living in a slum and everyone keeps showing up dead. I mean, come on…
So it's hard to get beyond that and it's no great shock, and it's a matter of public note now that I have Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.
KING: You do have that, it's been diagnosed?
WARE: Oh, yeah. Disorder. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. And it's actually been made very, very public of late.
KING: And what does that mean? What did they explain to you it means?
WARE: They didn't need to explain it, I can tell you now. I mean, there's a whole series of things that people who go through traumatic events, you know, they can experience.
KING: Is it impossible to go through what you have gone through and not experience it?
WARE: Well, I don't know if it's impossible, but you certainly-- you don't walk away untouched. I mean, physically I've been very, very lucky, my wounds have been minor, just scrapes. But no one comes home untouched. There's the wounds you can see and the wounds that you can't see.
KING: Do the people in Iraq get Post Traumatic Stress, too?
WARE: Yeah, it's called being Iraqi. Of course they do, but they have to push on. They don't get to come home. And don't get me started -- I mean, I guess the PTSD kicks in in the lack of perspective here, but I mean, talk about Australia and refugees and immigration, it just offends me. Talking about the things that we trouble ourselves with and tie ourselves up in knots with when really, in the grand scheme, you know, it's not that important.
KING: But are there things you worried about, too?
WARE: No, no…
KING: You can't go a few minutes without worrying about, but twenty years ago you would have.
WARE: Of course. I had nothing else to worry about and I didn't know what the real world was like. 'Cause this is not the real world. This is a bubble floating on the sea of humanity.
KING: But how do we learn? How do we each day get out of our bubble and understand the world?
WARE: Oh, God knows. I have no idea. I'm trying to get back in the bubble. That, I can't do. And, like, for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder there can be an involuntary re-living of a near-death experience. I don't have that; I have entirely too many of them. There's disassociation, sleeplessness, you have the nightmares, the mood swings, the this and that, you know. The hyper-vigilance -- right now I can tell you how safe this building is for a bombing and how prime it is, how well a carbomb would go off in your carpark underneath, it would be an absolute corker. They're the things I see. I still sit with my back to a wall in a restaurant. Actually, I don't go to restaurants, I don't go out.
KING: So did you realize you were having this problem or did someone else tap you on the shoulder and say, "Michael…"
WARE: No, I'm not a fool. When I went to my first conflict, even in Timor, I was aware of PTSD. I saw the vets come home from Viet Nam, for goodness sake, and the crappy way we treated them -- which is not happening today.
So I was waiting, you know, I was alert and I read. But no, it took me kicking and screaming to bring it to people's attention. That and the fact that I could no longer ignore it once I was going off the deep end.
KING: And so what happens from here?
WARE: Well, allegedly I'm writing a book. That's what I'm home for.
KING: Is that therapeutic or is that a silly move?
WARE: Well, insha'allah, hopefully it will be. That was Arabic, by the way.
KING: What were you telling me?
WARE: That means God willing.
WARE: We hope so. It's been six months, I haven't written a word. Every notebook I touch, every piece of paper, every video I watch, every memento I pull out of a box is laden with memory.
KING: But yet you want to write a book and you want to go back to Iraq?
WARE: Oh, yeah. I don't want to live in Iraq any more. That's the thing -- there's a difference between living war and visiting war. That's what most people do, is visit war. And there's a difference between doing a one-year tour as a grunt or a digger, and living there nonstop for, like, seven. I think that was a bit excessive, looking back.
KING: And people probably tried to tell you that along the way, family included.
WARE: Yeah, I suppose. But that's the other thing. I mean, front row ticket to history, also… it's so engaging. It's like chess. It's like this intellectual chess but with violence and armies. And the other thing is the truth! The truth. I mean, you know, Tony Abbott actually admitted that they all tell us porkies [lies]. In war, everyone lies. Our government, their government, the so-called good guys, the so-called bad guys, even the civilians. Tim O'Brien wrote this book after Viet Nam and he said, "There's no such thing as a true war story." And that is true. And so, to get behind it and to see it is just -- it is a gift. Now, that gift comes with a price.
KING: And you're paying the price, is what you're saying.
WARE: Well, so do the diggers, and that's what annoys me so much about successive Australian administrations, federal governments. Their media policy on the soldiers, on the diggers -- I mean, it is unbelievable. Our diggers are sweating and bleeding in a vacuum. And they're kept in that vacuum, where it's over there, out of the way, and it's not in the Australian public consciousness, because it's politically convenient. Now, the less the Australian public thinks anything about our diggers being involved in anything over there--
KING: So what are they involved in? Today, in Iraq.
WARE: In Iraq, we did very little. It was a little bit of a joke, I thought. It was unkind to the diggers. I mean, they were stuck -- our battalion group was stuck in the most remote part of the desert, the most peaceful part of Iraq, so there wouldn't be any body bags, essentially. In Afghanistan, however, our boys are putting in in a big way. I know there was a thing on MediaWatch last year [possibly this, from 2007?] and I've since caught up on the debates about the nature of the media coverage and Australian Defence Force policies … all I can tell you is this: I've worked with just about -- I've certainly worked with every modern Western military fighting in the so-called War on Terror. I've also been to the wars in Georgia, I've covered the Mexican cartel wars over there, I've been to the wars in Lebanon. The Australian Department of Defence and the Defence Force itself, their media policies are embarrassing. The Americans -- even the Brits, who still remain tight-lipped and still uncomfortable with the media -- have a much better, much more successful media policy than we do. We are stuck in the Dark Ages when it comes to the Australian government and the Defence Force leadership handling our men in conflict, our men in combat.
KING: So our men in in combat, in Afghanistan, what are they doing?
WARE: You wouldn't have a clue what they're doing, would you? You've got to ask me! That's unbelievable.
KING: That's why you're here. Tell me.
WARE: The Aussie government doesn't want you to know the truth, I suppose, because like I said, it's politically inconvenient.
KING: But you can tell us the truth, so tell us.
WARE: Well, I haven't -- hey, very few people have spent real time with diggers in the real shit, you know? The truth, in war, lies where the meat meets the metal. That's on the front line. Now, I see the Australian Defence Force has done these "trial embeds," taking a handful of selected journalists over and then wrapping them up in cotton wool balls -- against those journalists' objections -- as a so-called insight for the Australian people into what our soldiers are doing. Well, that was just a farce.
And our soldiers… in Afghanistan, we have an infantry group that's there under Dutch command supporting a reconstruction effort in a province in Afghanistan I know like the back of my hand. In Afghanistan, let me just preface it by saying I am Afghani. [speaks in Pashto] I'm Pashtu. I come from the Taliban tribe. I really went native. So I know the area where the Aussies are operating like the back of my hand. I know the men they are fighting and killing. So I know I've pretty much -- I've been in Iraq, only just paying small attention to Afghanistan, but I do know what our lads are up to and what they're up against. So you have the infantry there, under Danish command, and those boys are out there doing patrols, and on patrol you can patrol a thousand times and nothing happens till that one that…
KING: Does happen.
WARE: …you come back without that leg. Then you have an entire regiment of our Special Air Service over there. Now, they're SAS, super-secret, media-shy, and there's good reasons for that. There's good reason why soldiers don't like journalists. However, journalists are a tool in any war, and our boys over there are really getting into it, trust me. They're taking out the Taliban's mid-ranking leadership. Our boys are spilling blood, and in a very effective way and they're doing glorious things in silence, and I'm sorry, that offends me. And to say that we can't talk about these things for operational security, meaning if we talk about these things afterwards, this will affect the security of our soldiers still in the field, what a load of codswallop. I challenge the Minister of Defence to bring that on. Oh my God.
KING: Okay, so can I go back to you, because that is where this started--
WARE: Oh, who cares about me? I mean, let's think about the soldiers who are doing this and their families, what the families go through!
KING: But you're home for a break--
WARE: Oh, sorry, I forgot.
KING: --because you're suffering Post-Traumatic Stress.
WARE: You wouldn't know it, would you?
KING: Will you go back?
WARE: Oh, if--if--if--if the situation arises, yeah.
KING: If doctors allow you or you feel up to it?
WARE: Oh, bugger the doctors. Who gives a shit about the doctors?
KING: If you feel as though you're up to it? Under what conditions would you go back?
WARE: Yeah, I'd go back. If there was a good story. If there's a story that had to be told. And this is the other thing. I mean, there's stories that just don't get told!
KING: Allright, but The Michael Ware Story, when do you--
WARE: Oh God, that's the most boring story of all.
KING: Yes, well, I want to hear about it. So just briefly in summing up, how long are you back in Brisbane for?
WARE: Um, turns out for another year.
KING: For another year?
WARE: Yes, yes.
KING: So can we have you back for another chat in a little while?
WARE: Oh, you are a glutton for punishment, darling, aren't you?
KING: I am a glutton for punishment, you've always known that.
WARE: I came home on book leave, and then there was a bit of a thing with my current employer, sort of some confusion, and now I'm home for a year. It turns out it's a good thing to be home. It's nice to actually be back.
KING: Well, I certainly think your family think that, too.
WARE: I'm sure they do.
KING: Michael Ware, thank you very much and we look forward to talking with you again soon.
WARE: Thanks, sweetheart. It was my pleasure, anyhow.