According to Michael Ware (Bachelor of Arts, ’92; Bachelor of Laws, ’94), “The closer you are to death, the funnier things become”. It’s an idea he lived by during his time as foreign correspondent in Iraq, first for Time magazine, then for CNN.
The award-winning journalist and now award-winning documentarian has many other accolades to his name, including longest continual service reporting from the Middle East, and reportedly the only Westerner taken by Islamic State known to have survived.
On his final return to Australia, Ware embarked on a journey to take his account of the Iraq wars to the public and, knowing that his hundreds of hours of personal video archives would be far more powerful than any words he could write, chose to do so through film.
Winner of the 2015 Walkley Documentary Award, and three 2015 AACTA Awards for Best Direction in a Documentary, Best Editing and Best Sound, Only the Dead tells Ware’s poignant story of finding the darkness in himself and others against the backdrop of unrest and conflict in the Middle East.
What have been some career highlights for you? Not just during your time in the Middle East, but throughout your whole career?
I’ve been blessed to have many opportunities in my career that may not have seemed like opportunities at the time. I mean I was playing for the Queensland Reds [Super Rugby team] when I had a car accident. I earned three caps playing with the Reds, but my hopes and aspirations of being a professional rugby player were dashed in one accident. But if I hadn’t had that accident, I would never have become the journalist that I eventually became.
A great and early highlight was straight out of law school, working as the associate to the President of the Court of Appeal, Tony Fitzgerald of the Fitzgerald Enquiry.
I definitely consider tripping over and falling into journalism a career highlight. It’s not something I ever really contemplated; I did one subject in journalism at UQ and decided it wasn’t for me! Nonetheless, The Courier Mail offered me an opportunity to become a journalist. The newspaper and I decided to give it a go for a year. Nineteen years later, here I was.
Other highlights include some of the things I published at The Courier Mail about police corruption, child abuse and I wrote about institutional abuse within the Australian Army for Time magazine.
The real highlight was my first taste of an overseas assignment when I was asked to go to East Timor to relieve the regular correspondent. Those three weeks turned into five months and I knew from that moment on, I knew there was nothing else in journalism I wanted to do other than to report foreign stories.
What drew you to a role as a foreign correspondent?
From the beginning when I first entered journalism, at the back of my head was always the idea that I would be a foreign correspondent. I think that’s the aspiration of many young journalists and I was very privileged to get the opportunity.
At high school I had my first brush with the idea of being a foreign correspondent when the newspapers were reporting on the death of a great Australian war cameraman called Neil Davis. A man I’d never heard of in life, but who I learned about when he was killed. As I discovered more and more about this man’s career, the Vietnam War, and the war in Cambodia, the spark was lit within me. I thought that if ever I should become a journalist that’s the type of journalist I’d want to be. We all stand on the shoulders of giants and Australia particularly has an immense and great tradition of foreign war correspondents. I felt the obligation to try and live up to that legacy and it would be a great honour to be that [inspiration] now for our new generation of journalists.
You were sent to the Middle East on assignment for Time, but were given many opportunities to come home. What made you stay for almost a decade?
When I was recruited by Time magazine, I worked from the far-flung colonial outpost of Sydney. I don’t know that my editors even knew they had a Sydney office. Then, 9/11 completely changed my life because that’s when I was sent to Afghanistan and from that moment on my time in our so-called ‘wars on terror’ began.
For some perverse reason, history chose some knock-about boy from Brisbane to be the only one able to access a certain part of the Iraq War. It’s the war of our generation and I was the only one who was able to cross all the front lines and access all sides in the fight: the Americans, the insurgents, what we now call the Islamic State, the Shia militia, the governments’ death squads. I was the only one that was able to do that and so it felt hard to leave knowing that there wouldn’t be anyone else to fill that role.
Also I had my Iraqi family. These are the men who were with me through almost all those years and I couldn’t walk away from Iraq feeling like I was abandoning them. So until I could get the bulk of them out of the country to Australia, to the UK, to America, it didn’t feel right to leave.
Ultimately, the war became my normal. That’s where I felt most at home. When I would return to Brisbane for a month here for Christmas or a month there, I felt so uncomfortable in my own skin that all I wanted to do was race back to war.
The supermarket scene at the end of The Hurt Locker is real – I still experience that every day.
It’s a universal war story that when you’re over there, you want to be back here. But when you’re back here, all you want to do is return over there.
Why were you privy to all sides of these wars? Do you even know?
Ultimately, no. Part of the answer is because I was there from the very, very beginning. There wasn’t just one war in Iraq, there was at least four; there was the insurgent’s war with the officers and men of the former Iraqi army who were fighting to free their country from the foreign occupier; then there was the Holy War, which we now call the Islamic State; then there was the civil war between the Iraqis themselves, between the Sunni and the Shia; and then there was Iran’s war versus virtually everyone else named above. I ultimately accessed all four of those wars, but it began through the insurgent war just as it was beginning its first gasps. I went out and found these military officers and asked them how they felt, what they saw was their future and what they intended to do about it. It’s because I accessed them then before they had picked up their guns, that once they became the insurgents and killed thousands of Americans, I was already on the inside. And from being on the inside of that war, I was told by them that the Holy War had begun, and that the civil war was coming, and that Iran was playing a master-hand behind it all.
I honestly think the other part of it is that I was just some larrikin, Brisbane boy who could just sit down and talk to anyone. At the end of the day what kept me alive was my transparency. I lived or died, literally, on my reputation. What I said was what I did. If I ever betrayed anyone, misquoted anyone, deviated from anything I ever promised, then all factions in the war knew where I lived … the ultimate ‘letter to the editor’ was that they could come and kill me and all of my Iraqi team. There were two attempts but we were able to thwart them and ultimately make peace again with those who were trying to kill me. That’s what allowed me to do what I did, because I was the honest broker.
Are your abductions and assassination attempts documented in the film? How did you escape imminent beheading when you were taken by Al Qaeda militants (now IS)?
I have the perverse and yet wonderful distinction of being the only Westerner ever taken hostage by the Islamic State who lived. I filmed my kidnapping, they went back and recorded over most of it, but you still see the first few frames as I’m kidnapped. They were going to behead me and film my execution with my own camera. But I was saved, not by our side, not in a Hollywood ending with the ‘good guys’ coming in at the last minute; I was saved by other ‘bad guys’. By the Iraqi insurgents who I’d been friends with for years who didn’t believe in this extremist idea of Islam and who literally put their own lives on the line to save mine by threatening a turf war; that meant if the Islamic State beheaded me, they would be at war with the insurgents.
Because of the nature of my contact with all sides, when hostages were taken, very often I was in a position where I was the only one who could reach the hostage-takers. It breaks my heart to say I had some failures but it fulfils me to say that I was able to secure the release of many foreigners and many Iraqis.
Why did you want to tell this story? What are you hoping people will take from you sharing your experience in the Middle East?
I witnessed the birth of the Islamic State. But this film could be a story from any war in human history because there are certain universals, hence our title Only the Dead. It comes from the quotation, ‘only the dead have seen the end of war’.
And if that’s true, as I believe it is, then war is as much a part of the human condition as a mother’s love for her child. There’s never been a moment in human history that we’ve been free of war. Our present is filled with wars, and I don’t see any time in our future where we will escape it. That’s really what this film is about; it’s a conversation about the human condition. With a dodgy little camera I bought on the black market in Kurdistan, I accidentally filmed a real life Apocalypse Now and it’s about the light and the dark that lives inside all of us. It’s sad, but it’s not hopeless: only by coming to understand the darkness that’s in all of us, can we ever hope to truly illuminate the light. Light and dark cannot exist without the other. Through the dreadful extremity of war, I was given the privilege of being able to peer into that greater darkness in all of us.
Part of it is personal. I have hundreds of hours of tapes that I feel need to be shared, to honour the lives and deaths captured on them.
Also as well, in our film, you see the birth of Islamic State. So if you want to understand the nature of the beast that we are dealing with today, this is the film where it begins. More than that, if you want to understand truly what it takes to go and fight something like the Islamic State, you will see the human cost; what it takes from your soul to fight these guys.
Beyond all of that is the great universal truth about the nature of war and the nature of humanity. They’re the messages and the reasons.
We’ve shown this around the world now and we thought there would be vicious attacks from the left, from the right, from this, from that. It hasn’t happened. There has been a universal reaction to this film. It’s only 78 minutes, but when you walk out of the cinema 78 minutes later, I guarantee you won’t be the same person.
What’s next for you? You seem like someone who might struggle to enjoy down-time, but you’ve certainly earned it.
I tripped into journalism, and now I’ve tripped again, this time into film and television. I’ve been a professional story-teller for 20 years, and now I’m trying to translate that story-telling into entertainment and film. We’ve partnered with a number of international organisations to begin telling stories in a different way.
I live for down-time, I’m sitting looking over the Brisbane River right now and I never want to have to move again… But we have to keep moving. I’m leaking with stories, and for the dead and for the undead I feel an obligation to keep telling them. For the time being I will continue to tell modern war stories, but eventually the business will evolve into telling far more diverse stories because that’s what I want to keep doing.
What are your fondest memories from your time at UQ?
The Rec Club? It was called The Rec Club in my day, it doesn’t seem to exist anymore. I drank my way through seven years of UQ…
What advice do you have for journalism graduates who might be interested in pursuing a similar career path?
Don’t do it! You’ll be hot, you’ll be cold, you’ll be tired, you’ll be hungry, it will be bloody, and it will hurt. You cannot now, as students or recent graduates, imagine … success here comes at a price and it’s a price you will continue to pay for the rest of your life. But you will never see the world through the same eyes and for me that’s a privilege.
You have to have a burning ambition. Journalism, is particularly difficult to get into these days and foreign correspondence is the elite of journalism - you really have to do something extraordinary to make it. But that doesn’t mean you don’t try! You really have to want to do it as well; you really have to put yourself out there because no one falls into journalism by chance anymore.