The Current

War reporter Clarissa Ward remembers her first brush with death, and realizing she couldn't save the world

Clarissa Ward remembers her first brush with death in a conflict zone, and how it taught her to weigh those risks, and why she was taking them, more carefully.

Risks of war reporting have to be taken for the right reasons: Ward

Clarissa Ward's new book On All Fronts: Education of a Journalist looks back on her 15 years covering conflict around the world. (Kate Brooks/Penguin Random House)

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Originally published on Oct. 26, 2020

As a young foreign correspondent in Baghdad, covering the Iraq War in 2005, Clarissa Ward's first "real brush with death" didn't terrify her the way she thought it might.

"It's a very strange feeling because it's utterly unemotional," said Ward, who was embedded with the U.S. army, covering the war for Fox News Channel, when multiple suicide bombers attacked her compound.

"I had always thought that when you are in a real situation where you think you might die, that you'd be sort of crying or thinking that you want your parents, or your loved ones," she told The Current's Matt Galloway. 

Instead, she remembers going into "an almost zombie frame of mind, where you're just trying to get your run bag and get into the panic room."

"There is a little voice that was going over and over in the back of my head: 'Why am I here? What am I doing here? I don't belong here, I could die here,'" she said.

"You realize that it's not a game, that it's not exciting and glamorous, that it's real, it's hell, it's war."

Ward in Mosul, Iraq, in 2005. It was her first time working in a conflict zone. (Submitted by Clarissa Ward)

Ward is now based in London as CNN's chief international correspondent, and is the author of On All Fronts: Education of a Journalist, a new memoir about her 15 years covering conflict around the world. She's reported from the front lines in Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen, as well as during Russian incursions in Ukraine and Georgia.

PTSD of conflict reporting still 'taboo' in industry

Ward said the incident in Baghdad was a "wake-up call" to make sure she was taking risks "for the right reasons," while "doing everything you can to mitigate them."

"I understood that while I would keep going to dangerous places, I would go out of my way to avoid being in real front-line combat situations," she said.

But she said she's seen other journalists become addicted to life on the front lines.

"The moment that you become addicted to it is the moment when you know you've survived," she told Galloway.

You are signing yourself up for a lifetime of PTSD if you actively pursue those kinds of near-death experiences.- Clarissa Ward

"There's this thrill of excitement: 'Oh, my gosh, we survived, we're alive, what a great story we have to tell — open the Jack Daniel's, let's stay up really late and keep telling the story over and over again until it suddenly is no longer real."

She said that "the danger is that it's not sustainable."

"You are signing yourself up for a lifetime of PTSD if you actively pursue those kinds of near-death experiences." 

Ward said she's seen extremely disturbing things in conflict zones, but the impact is not immediate.

"I would see a child die, I would be shocked by it, but not necessarily really processing it in that moment," she said. 

"I would leave the war zone, go home, feel completely detached from my life, completely detached from the people who I love, my friends and my family." 

Ward, in northern Syria in 2016. It was during her time reporting on the civil war that she realized 'you have to be able to accept that you're not always going to save lives.' (Submitted by Clarissa Ward)

That impact on reporters' mental health is "still a taboo amongst people who do this kind of work," she said.

There needs to be more open and frank discussion to "get rid of this stigma attached to struggling with covering these types of stories," she said.

"I don't care how tough you are, the cheque is going to come, OK, and you're going to have to pay it," she said.

"You need to be proactive about looking after yourself, looking after your mental health, checking in with yourself constantly to see where you're at." 

Reporter's 'job is not to end wars'

Ward always loved telling stories and had aspirations to become an actor, but that changed during her senior year at Yale University, when terrorists attacked New York on 9/11.

"I had never, ever thought that much about America's relationship with the rest of the world," she said, adding that she didn't understand "what kind of miscommunication and dehumanization was fuelling this horrendous act of violence."

Ward in Beirut in 2006. (Submitted by Clarissa Ward)

"I became almost obsessed with the idea of trying somehow to act as a translator, to straddle worlds … hopefully to try to improve understanding of each other, humanizing each other," she said.

"Keep in mind… I was 22, I was very idealistic and full of hubris," she laughed.

But years later, during her time reporting on Syria's protracted civil war, she realized "you have to be able to accept that you're not always going to save lives."

"Your job is not to end wars; your job is to shine a light on stories that are taking place, to give people a voice, to allow them to be heard, to bear witness to their suffering," she said.

The work of activism, and drafting policy to change the world should fall to others, she said.

"It can be a deeply distressing experience, but ultimately, it is also very freeing because I think we have to realize in this job, there needs to be a more humble approach," she said.

It allows a reporter to "really hone the craft of telling the story," she told Galloway, and make sure it's rich and vivid enough to "resonate with people hundreds of miles away."

In an increasingly crowded news field, she thinks of the audience and asks herself: "How do I get their attention? How do I make them care? How do I make them feel this?"

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Samira Mohyeddin. 

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