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Only the Dead Documents an Iraq War Correspondent’s Journey to the Abyss—and Back

10 minute read

In late 2004, which seems both like yesterday and many lifetimes ago, I finished my second stint in TIME’s Baghdad bureau. It had been bruising. Two months of tightly controlled movement, rage and fear in the air, daily bombings, and some very close calls in Ramadi, site of some of the bloodiest fighting of the war. When I was asked if I wanted to go back at the end of the year, I said no.

I explained to my then-TIME colleague Michael Ware that I was beyond exhausted, that I didn’t want to spend a second consecutive Christmas in Iraq, that my father was ill and my family had enough to worry about—and that I feared I might start enjoying it too much. Ware said it all made perfect sense. But he was going back, and he was going to keep going back. Because, he said, “We all know I made my deal with the devil a long time ago.”

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Those words sprang to mind as I watched Only the Dead See the End of War, Ware’s documentary about his years in Iraq, which premieres Monday night on HBO. To make the film, he mined hundreds of hours of footage recorded with a cheap handycam to tell a story about the war—or a few stories, really—that have rarely been presented in such visceral, immediate and devastating fashion. For as much as Only the Dead is about the evolution of the insurgency in Iraq and the birth of what would become the terror group ISIS, and as much as it lays bare the toll the war exacted on those who fought it, it is also very much about the deal that Ware made, and what it cost him.

Ware calls Only the Dead an “unwitting documentary”—he only started recording so he could later find details for whatever story he was writing. The footage that has made it onto the screen is therefore raw, often shaky, but that’s its strength. The viewer sees what Ware saw. They get bounced around when firefights begin or explosions go off, just as he did. In one scene, we even hear his breathing as he meets armed insurgents under cover of night.

Michael Ware in Iraq.
Michael Ware in Iraq.Franco Pagetti—VII Photo/HBO

Arriving in northern Iraq after reporting extensively from Afghanistan, Ware hurried to Baghdad after it was conquered by the American military. Aided by a wonderful group of Iraqi colleagues who are remembered—and in one heartbreaking case, mourned—with great affection in the film, he got to work. As American missteps fueled anger and distrust, Ware made contacts within the various groups that became the insurgency (though “insurgencies” would be be more accurate). That included some Iraqis who had been fired, disastrously, from their posts in the Iraqi military and others who later linked up with Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the ruthless jihadist group run by a little-known Jordanian named Abu Musab al-Zaraqawi.

Ware’s early groundwork proved invaluable, and his sources, Shia and Sunni alike, gave him an unequaled view into the war. AQI sent him propaganda videos showing jihadists beheading westerners or rapturously sending off suicide bombers—scenes the film includes. The more violence he saw, the more he wanted to understand the men who were behind it. Ware frequently embedded with the American military as well, especially after AQI realized it could spread its own messages—presaging ISIS’s highly sophisticated propaganda apparatus—and very nearly killed him after he drove one too many times down Haifa Street, a Baghdad thoroughfare under Zarqawi’s control.

Only the Dead shows that while Ware may have escaped his time in Iraq with his life, his mind and soul were badly scarred. “I became a man I never thought I’d be,” he intones at one point. The most uncomfortable example of this comes when Ware films a dying man who’d been shot by American troops, doing nothing to intervene or remind the soldiers that the laws of war require them to provide medical assistance to wounded enemy combatants. The most poignant example comes when Joe Walker, a young Marine 2nd Lieutenant, shows Ware and photographer Yuri Kozyrev around Observation Point Hotel, a crumbling shell of a building in Ramadi that was taking fire every single day. Walker openly wrestles with the impact the experience is having. “I try my best to keep the big picture in mind,” he says. “When I got guys getting shot, getting killed, you start getting tunnel vision. You start hating this place. You start hating everybody here.”

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Ware’s camera catches a dazed, baleful expression across the Marine’s face. “I could see good men here losing their grip, losing themselves,” Ware narrates. He knows whereof he speaks, because the same thing, of course, was happening to him.

This became even more harder to ignore after Ware moved from TIME to CNN in mid-2006. Always high energy, he became increasingly manic and erratic. Friends and colleagues worried for his health and safety, concerned that the persona of Mick Ware, the madman Aussie war correspondent who’d take risks others wouldn’t, was starting to obscure the excellent, often prescient work done by Michael Ware, the journalist.

He went back to his native country of Australia for an extended stay in 2009, ostensibly to write a book, then realized that he shouldn’t and couldn’t go back. But he was now a profoundly traumatized stranger in a what had become a strange land. He could barely function away from war. He couldn’t sleep. He self-medicated. He saw roadside bombs when he drove and the faces of the dead when he closed his eyes. He also had to acknowledge what his time away had done to his family—particularly his son, who barely saw Ware for most of his first eight years. “That was the worst part of the deal,” Ware tells me now. “He paid the price far more than I did.”

For a long time, Ware wanted to die. But he didn’t. He chose to live. He found counsellors who had had worked with soldiers and thus understood what he was going through. There was “a lot of thrashing about,” he told me, “a lot of howling at the moon,” but he slowly started piecing his life back together, bit by bit. “It was the hardest thing I think I’ve ever done,” he says. “It was harder than the war itself.”

He also remembered the tapes that he’d stashed under his mother’s bed when he’d come back to Australia. At first, he watched just a few scenes here, a couple of tapes there, followed by two- or three-day benders meant to blot out everything he’d just seen and remembered. The counseling continued, though, and the tapes became part of it, a way to remember things he’d forgotten, to give structure to a fraying life.

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Others took an interest, too, a group that came to include Oscar-winning director Bill Guttentag and Justine Rosenthal, a former executive editor at Newsweek. They helped shape it and soothed his unease about being the main character in this story, a notion he says he resisted for almost two years. Ware and Rosenthal became life partners as well.

I saw him one recent morning at the Manhattan apartment in which he, Rosenthal, and their 17-month-old daughter were staying while doing press for the film and lining up more work for their production company—named, aptly, Penance Pictures. Ware readily discusses his highs and lows and regrets, especially when it comes to the sadness he caused people close to him. And there are still traces of all that time in Iraq and all that death he witnessed. He occasionally has “fuzzy moments,” he says, and his sleep can be so disturbed that Justine will shake his foot if she needs to wake him, lest he come up swinging.

But Ware is unquestionably in much better shape than he was after leaving Iraq. He’s pursuing new projects that don’t involve war. He is rebuilding his relationship with his son and coaching youth rugby back in Australia. He can envision a future, and he’s excited for it, even though, as he says frequently, “I will forever walk with ghosts.”

Of course he will. You don’t do what Ware did and just set it aside and move on to the next thing. I never did go back to Iraq, and I certainly did not do what Ware did, but I later spent time in Afghanistan, Gaza, and other conflict zones, reporting on war, trauma—and what comes after. I carry all of it with me all the time. I know how alluring and exhilarating that sort of reporting can be, and I know what it feels like later, when you can’t sleep, can’t concentrate, and struggle to relate to people in your life, including those who love you.

That’s part of the horrible privilege of seeing the worst humanity has to offer.

There’s not much in the way of politics in the film, but Ware’s anguished attempts to reckon with his Iraq experiences contrast starkly with America’s failure to do the same. To this day, the size and scale of the catastrophe of that war, which took the lives of some 4,500 Americans and well over 100,000 Iraqis, still seems unappreciated here. And far too often, the direct line from Zarqawi and the Iraq war to Syria and ISIS’s caliphate is willfully ignored, as is the degree to which America’s failures in Iraq still undercut its reputation and strength abroad. What becomes clear as you watch the film, though, is how silly, craven, and narcissistic it is for would-be leaders to bray for new wars when they haven’t the slightest clue what war actually means for those who have to fight it, and those who have to endure it.

Even if that message doesn’t come through in Only the Dead, the film makes it impossible to ignore awful realities Ware knows all too well. There is great value in that, for him, and for us. We get another brutal reminder of what happened in Iraq, of what war is, and of what it does to people. Those are some of the insights he got out of that deal he made, despite all that it cost him. And by reckoning squarely with those costs, Ware found a way to believe in a future.

Phil Zabriskie is a former Time foreign correspondent and the author of “The Kill Switch,” a Kindle Single on the before, during, and after of killing in combat, as experienced by soldiers and Marines he first met while on assignment in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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