Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

A fascinating but difficult book of poems about war correspondent Paul Watson

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. ...

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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.

I mention 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.

That moment 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.

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.

I mention 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.

That moment 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.

Then I 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.”

Attacked and pummeled by a mob in Mosul one day, O’Brien has Watson thinking,

 . . . Remember
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,
now here comes yours.

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.”

Another 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.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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