Some of the
scariest people I've ever met are war photographers. They're the people who are
paid to pop up their heads for a good look when everyone else with sense is
diving for cover. Some of them have very cold eyes, of the sort that Special
Operators are depicted as having in the movies. These sometimes are people who
have grown too comfortable with looking violent death in the face, at some cost
to their souls.
this because I was alone over the weekend (my wife had to attend to a family
issue) and so the moment seemed right to pick up Dan O'Brien's War Reporter, a book of poems about the journalist Paul Watson, who is most famous
for his photograph of the body of an Army aviator being dragged through the
streets of Mogadishu in October 1993.
is the point of departure for the book. O'Brien writes, "When Paul took this
picture he heard the dead man speak to him: 'If you do this, I will own you forever.'" And it develops that the
dead man was correct.
You get the
picture. This is a book you read because you have to, not because you want.
Even as I settled down in the living room to read this, I began to find reasons
not to -- I disliked the cover, even more the blurbs. (I mean, invoking Wallace
Stevens?) By the time I got to the title page, I felt a little antsy and didn't
know why. I think I probably was a bit scared, unconsciously, of what I was
getting into. I have worked hard to leave all that behind and I now lead a
peaceful life. Even my dreams are pretty good nowadays.
began reading the poems. Soon I thought, this might be the best book ever
written about war photography.
When I pick
up a book, it is usually because I hope it will tell me things I didn't know.
This one was different, because it told me things I was hoping to forget, and
brought back people and days I would be happier not to think about. As I read,
I suddenly remembered, for the first time in years, a female photographer I met
in Baghdad. I thought of her as "The Photographer of Death." She just felt like
Death to me, with a capital D, when she walked into the room. I remember being
told that she would go out and work all day and then come back every night and
kill a bottle of inexpensive Scotch. With her sunken eyes I couldn't tell
whether she was 25 or 45. I thought of her especially when I read the line of
Watson thinking of a female journalist who was trying to seduce him: "I suspected she was already dead."
and pummeled by a mob in Mosul one day, O'Brien has Watson thinking,
. . .
what the ghost promised me: If you do this
I will own
you. I just have the this feeling
he's thinking, You watched my desecration,
He has a
similar sickening thought about his own troubled mind when a Serb militiaman
threatens to kill him, a threat that he almost welcomes: "God's great aim. God's
executioner draining my poisoned skull."
very strong line:
. . .
The fog of war
as crematorium smoke.
I think that is a brilliant
combination, and a bit frightening, drawing a direct line from Clausewitz to
the Nazi death camps.
One caveat: Not all the poems are good,
or even are poetry. These lines to me, about how Canadian peacekeepers in
Somalia tortured a youth they captured, felt more like
a human rights report than a poem:
. . . . Some soldiers
waterboarded him, then sodomized him
with a broomstick. Extinguished cigarettes
on his penis. Then beat him with meal packs
till he died.
Like I said, you read a book like this
because you have to, not because you want to.