Saturday, August 18, 2007
There are moments in every reporter’s life when a story brings you to a moral conundrum. It can be something as simple as making that dreaded call to a grieving mother to get a quote about her dead child, or shoving a microphone into the face of a man who has just lost everything in a house fire.
But sometimes, the circumstances are so extreme, so outside the norm, that nothing in your previous life can prepare you for what you’re about to do. Surrounded by an angry mob, Canadian foreign correspondent Paul Watson, then working for the Toronto Star, had only a split second to decide whether to strip a dead man of his last shred of dignity or walk away from a story that eventually won him a Pulitzer Prize.
He stayed with the story and the world came to know one of the most iconic images in war photography: the body of a U.S. soldier from a downed Black Hawk helicopter being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu.
Here’s how, in his newly published memoir Where War Lives, Watson describes the moment – on Oct. 4, 1993 – that changed his life and haunts him to this day:
The crowd parted, forming a manic horseshoe around the corpse. My eyes panned the frenzy like a camera guided by invisible hands. I looked to the ground. And that is how I came to know Staff-Sgt. William David Cleveland. In less than the time it took to breathe, I had to decide whether to steal a dead man’s last shred of dignity. The moment of choice, in the swirl of dust and sweat, hatred and fear, is still trapped in my mind, denying me peace: just as I was about to press the shutter on my camera, the world went quiet, everything around me melted into a slow-motion blur, and I heard the voice: “If you do this, I will own you forever.”
And this paragraph sets the tone for the entire book.
Where War Lives is a breathtakingly compelling and candid account of Watson’s career as one of Canada’s premier foreign correspondents.
Watson, a former Toronto Star correspondent who later became the South Asia bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, bares it all as he takes the reader along for a ride through some of the worst man-made and natural disasters in the last 15 years – from the dusty streets of Mogadishu, to killing fields in Rwanda, to Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan and the aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami.
The writing is edgy, sometimes chaotic and raw. It feels like you’ve jumped in for a bumpy ride with a war correspondent: You get the passenger-side view of the madness around you and the inside view of how journalists work and survive in humanity’s hellholes.
Along the way, Watson shares his mental anguish, his feelings of guilt and his struggle with depression and the onset of post-traumatic stress syndrome. Yet he manages to avoid the “tortured soul reveals all” stereotype. Where War Lives is an emotional but also intelligent book. It takes the reader behind the headlines. Watson “unspins” lies and propaganda, shows the reader the connection between fighting in the streets of Mogadishu and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.
The book also shows the power – sometimes unintended – of the media. Staff-Sgt. Cleveland’s photograph changed history: Outraged and stunned by the loss of 18 soldiers, Americans demanded the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Somalia, handing Al-Qa’ida its first big victory. Almost 14 years later, Watson continues to live with a guilty conscience. “Over time, Staff-Sgt. Cleveland’s power over me had weakened,” Watson writes. “His voice had faded, his visits grown less frequent. But he was still there. I had just learned to live with him.”
Levon Sevunts is a Montreal writer who has worked as a war correspondent.
On the Web: To read an excerpt from Paul Watson’s Where War Lives, please go to Gazette Spotlights under Special Features on our website,
Where War Lives
By Paul Watson
McClelland & Stewart, 367 pages, $34.99