‘I’m addicted to war’

A former war buff embarks on her own 12 step program

My name is Maria, and I’m addicted to war.

I had my first taste of combat shortly after I turned 23, in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. From then on, war was my constant companion, friend and spiritual adviser.

Whenever I returned from a war zone, I would immediately start planning my next trip out. The last time I returned from a war zone was eight years ago, and for all of those eight years I’ve been preparing for my next combat assignment.

I spent a total of two solid years in the middle of combat, at the front lines, far from other journalists, editors, friends and family. I didn’t want to come back, and when pregnancy forced me into retirement, I felt that my life was over. I was in a long, dark tunnel, and the only light at the end of the tunnel was the kids’ high school graduations.

“The minute my kids are out of the house, I’m on the next plane out,” I have said over and over again.

Chris Hedges, author of the recently published “War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning” and a reporter with The New York Times, warned me that I was putting my marriage — not to mention my sanity and my life — in jeopardy by not dealing with my problem.

My initial response was to dismiss the concern entirely. He talked as if I would spare a second thought for my husband once I had the opportunity to go back to the front.

I love my children, but my family was a prison that kept me from doing the work I was meant to do. By comparison to what I had been doing previously — what I had been planning to accomplish — my work here seemed trivial and meaningless.

In the mid-1990s, I spent two weeks with a group of Georgian guardsmen just south of Russia as they robbed and pillaged their way across a rebel province. My fiancй was beaten and executed. Two other journalists and I were taken prisoner, escaped and got back to safety by hiking out, back across the front lines. I had the last interview given by rebellious Georgian President Zviad Gamsakhurdia before he died under mysterious circumstances.

Reuters congratulated me and sent me to Baku, where Azeri soldiers were constantly fighting against Armenian separatists in the west. Azeri refugees, ethnically cleansed from their homes, took shelter in refugee camps along the country’s southern border.

From there, I went to Tajikistan, then one of the world’s leaders in the killing of journalists, and accompanied rebel fighters to their camps in northern Afghanistan.

I felt that I was doing the most important work in the world, and that I had the skills that uniquely qualified me to report from these war zones. I easily picked up languages, got along well with local journalists and warlords, and could cajole both jaded bureaucrats and trigger-happy soldiers into giving me access that I needed to do my work. I loved working independently, under tight deadlines and under extreme pressure. I fell in love with each new country, each new person, each new conflict. I was doing the work I was put on Earth to do, and I never planned to return to the United States.

Once I did, my work seemed meaningless and shallow. How could writing a feature on new networking technology possibly compare in importance to what I was doing before?

Dr. Anthony Feinstein, who recently studied the psychological problems faced by war correspondents, suggested that I take a look at the diagnostic test at UrbanConflict.com. The test was originally developed for journalists who covered 9/11, but it also applies to war correspondents.

The results? My answers showed evidence of psychological distress and severe depression, and I was advised to see my doctor.

I wasn’t alone. According to Feinstein, of the 140 war correspondents he surveyed, almost 30 percent had suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder sometime in their careers. Twenty-one percent suffered from major depression. More than half were either single or divorced, and war correspondents also drank more and used more drugs than other journalists. I too had started abusing drugs in many occasions, and that is why I started looking for a drug rehab near me. I wanted to bounce back and get back to my normal life. Luckily, there’s plenty of rehab centers in Portland.

My problem, according to Hedges, was that I was still seduced by war — and I had to let go of it in order to go on with my life.

“It will destroy you as a human being,” said Hedges. “It will destroy you physically, and it will destroy you emotionally.”

Hedges himself first became a war correspondent in El Salvador out of a deep sense of idealism.

“I still feel that what I did was worthwhile, and that makes the terrible human atrocities that I witnessed bearable,” he said. “I was very interested in issues of social justice. I wanted to fight fascism. I wanted that epic battle to define my whole life. But I didn’t understand what war was until I got there. I didn’t understand how corrosive it was, how addictive it was, how destructive it could be.”

In his book, Hedges chronicles the dark side of the profession. It is glamorous, and being a war correspondent is somewhat like being a rock star. It offers a steady supply of adrenaline highs and the close camaraderie of being with other people who have risked their lives on the front lines.

And then there’s the overwhelming sense of importance.

That feeling is an illusion, said Hedges. Covering wars is important, but it’s not the most important thing in the world.

“The most important thing that I can do is raise my son and daughter,” he said.

Even the downsides of being a war correspondent can seem glamorous and exciting. They drink and smoke, they’re always on the road, they get wounded, they die.

I fully expected to die in combat. Hedges said that he never expected to come home alive from El Salvador.

It’s an addiction, Hedges said. And it’s an addiction that’s extremely difficult to kick.

“You have to find a whole new identity,” said Hedges.

Part of the problem is that there’s no room for war correspondents in civilian life. The profession breeds loners, rugged individualists with a distaste for authority and a high tolerance for risks. They don’t do well in cubicles, and they don’t make good middle managers.

“I have a whole set of skills that is now useless,” said Hedges. “And giving up the fraternity of reporters and cameramen was hard. I miss them. I spent more time with them than with my family. You miss that adrenaline rush, those highs. You miss the intensity of it.”

It’s been two years since his last combat assignment, and Hedges said that he doesn’t feel the urge to go back to a war zone.

Yes, he could probably make a difference if the United States goes to war with Iraq, covering the war from outside the narrow constraints of the officially sanctioned press pool.

“But because of the book, I have such a voice here,” he said. “If I didn’t have a voice, that would really bother me.”

Ian Stewart is another journalist who has found that writing a book has eased the process of dealing with his experience as a war journalist.

Stewart is the author of “Ambushed: A War Reporter’s Life on the Line” and a former Associated Press West Africa bureau chief. He is now in the AP’s San Francisco Bureau.

He was severely wounded in Sierra Leone in 1999 and has not been back to the front lines since.

“ ‘Ambushed’ was a big part of my recovery,” he said. Writing commentaries about world affairs for a newspaper in Toronto also helped, he said.

Since he now walks with a limp and has other physical problems, he’s wary of returning overseas.

“I just have to face the reality that it’s over for me,” he said.

While in the field, Stewart said he experienced first-hand all the problems that traditionally plague war correspondents.

“I couldn’t keep a relationship going to save my life,” he said. “People hide in the bottle when they see so much misery and death and destruction. I was certainly one of those cases. The extreme lifestyle — the drugs, the drinking, taking bigger and bigger risks — it’s all part of the cycle. Then the depression comes. You get depressed because life is boring, and then you have to push yourself to the next high. I was very much an adrenaline junkie. I got very pissy when I didn’t get my fix that day.”

He also smoked heavily, he said. “I was not hooked on nicotine, I was smoking because of the stress.”

Stewart said that he was lucky because his withdrawal symptoms came when he was mostly unconscious in the hospital, recovering from his head wounds.

He hasn’t smoked since, drinks only rarely and is in a stable relationship.

“My partner has a 6-year-old daughter, and my life is with that 6-year-old girl,” he said. “Nothing else seems important.”

One thing that Stewart said resonated with me a lot: He said that he didn’t want to go anywhere near a war zone, not even as a bureau chief able to shape news coverage and advise other reporters. He said he didn’t think that he’d be able to resist the temptation to go to the front, especially if other journalists’ lives were at risk.

I felt the same way about going back to Russia for any prolonged period of time. The last time I’d retired from covering wars and took a desk job in Moscow, I quit to go back to the front after one of my free-lance correspondents was murdered in Chechnya.

I didn’t trust myself to stay away from the front if I was anywhere near a conflict zone.

I decided that Hedges was right, that I had to let go of my attachment to my former profession. I went home and apologized to my husband for thinking of him as my jailer, and I instantly felt closer to him than I had in a long time.

And I decided to think of my work in a new way. Previously, I thought of everything I have been doing since I returned to the States as being a stopgap measure, work to keep me busy and my skills current so that I’d be ready to go overseas when the time came. The idea of writing about business technology for the rest of my life was too horrible to contemplate, though at least it paid better than writing for the local papers.

But once I let go of my plan to return to the front lines, I felt reinvigorated. It even began to seem possible to have a satisfying journalism career without getting shot at. For example, I like what Thomas Friedman is doing at The New York Times. I started to see myself traveling around the world’s developing nations, using the techniques of narrative journalism to explore complex economic stories for, say, the Wall Street Journal.

And it wasn’t horrible. I felt as if I’d lost 30 pounds of extra weight.

Hedges was right — war was an addiction, and I had to stay away from it. As long as I did, I would be all right, and my marriage would survive.

I called my old friends from Russia, the war correspondents I met on the front lines in the former Soviet Republics, to see whether they shared my experience.

Dmitri Pisarenko, now the Caucasus bureau chief for NTV, Russian’s independent television channel, was a very young television reporter for an Armenian news program when we first met. We were both waiting for a helicopter to take us out of Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave of Azerbaijan fighting for its independence.

He is married now and has a 3-year-old daughter, but he continues to cover the conflicts that plague the region — even though it occasionally puts stresses on family life. He took a bullet through the ribs in Nagorno-Karabakh, but went right back to war reporting.

He’s been covering conflict since 1992, including the ongoing struggle in Chechnya, which he said is too unfocused to get addicted to.

“It’s become a conflict much like the Palestinian one,” he said, “with occasional terrorist acts, but actual military actions are rare. What happens is that you start to develop phobias. Yesterday, I was very worried when I returned to my apartment building and saw a black package near the entrance. I instantly thought, ‘It’s a bomb.’

“But when I was in Karabakh — when I had to work alongside a military unit during an attack — yes, it’s like a narcotic,” he said. “You don’t think of anything else; it’s all animal instinct. And when you return home, then the fear sets in, but you’re drawn back.”

He relies on his instincts, he said, to keep safe. “Sometimes, someone invites you along because there’s going to be a battle, but you hear an inner voice warning you. Both my cameraman and I felt that before going to Martuni (a town in Nagorno-Karabakh), and we decided not to go. Later, we found out that the people who invited us had all died — a bomb exploded next to their car.”

It’s also a factor of age, he added.

“Now that I’m over 30, I approach these situations with some apprehension,” he said. “The older a person gets, the more front lines you’ve been to, the more careful you start to be. But when I first started, I thought it was impossible that I could die. It was like a movie. I was certain that it would happen to someone else. In fact, when I got wounded slightly, I actually wanted to get wounded, to feel that it was real, not a movie, to feel some pain and some danger.”

For Pisarenko, it seemed, it was possible to combine work and family, even though the work involved very dangerous assignments.

Madina Shavlokhova was also ready for family life, but not for retirement. I met her when we were both working at the Express-Chronicle, a Moscow-based human rights news weekly mostly supported by grants from Western foundations. I was copy editing the English-language edition. She was taking a short break from covering the war in Ossetia, a region located near Chechnya and divided between Russia and Georgia.

She was a little older than I was and had been covering conflicts since 1989. Now based in Moscow, she covers international politics for the daily Vremya/Moskovskiye Novosti.

For journalists based in Russia, covering combat brings additional risks and benefits, she explained. Journalists often get combat pay that is significantly higher than what they make back home and are paid even more when they report for Western outfits. During Russia’s post-Soviet economic crisis, this was a significant consideration for those thinking of going to the front lines.

These journalists also face higher risks than Western journalists covering the same conflicts. In addition to the possibility of dying in combat, local journalists can get killed in their homes if they print unfavorable articles.

“Many journalists died because they didn’t keep quiet, because they wrote what they saw,” said Shavlokhova. “Others went to cover the war and couldn’t write the truth because they feared for their personal safety. Some start drinking, drinking very heavily. There are many such people; I know a lot of them.”

Now 39, Shavlokhova said she doesn’t think she will ever leave war completely behind.

“You can’t stop being interested in war when it happens in the area where you were born,” she said. “But someday, I’d like to have children, a family. You start to understand that life is short.”

As a result of her war reporting, she said, she’s become more interested in the political process.

“I want to write more about the elections,” she said, “about how people come to power. Of course, in Russia, writing about elections is not completely safe, either.”

In talking to my old friends, I got the sense that they expected conflict reporting or other risky journalistic assignments to be a permanent part of their lives. And they seemed to be stable, well-adjusted individuals.

To get another perspective on the work-life balance involved with being a war correspondent, I called Roy Gutman, author of the book “Witness to Genocide” and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his work in Yugoslavia.

According to Gutman, it is possible to do good work as a war correspondent, to do it for the right reasons, and to maintain relationships.

“It’s very tough,” he said. “It’s so much juggling that you have to wonder if it’s really worth it. But a family is an anchor like no other anchor on Earth. It keeps you sane, and it reminds you that everyone else has a family.”

Gutman said that he was able to do the kind of work he did partly because his family was behind him. “When I started covering the ethnic cleansing story, my wife came to me and said, ‘This is really important, cover this story.’ There is nothing like a spouse, a family that says, ‘This is important, please, do this for us.’ That helped drive me.”

It also made him evaluate the risks he took more carefully, he said, and go after the stories that really mattered the most.

“I really want to do something that I can justify to my family,” he said. “If I’m going to take risks, I want to be able to say, ‘It’s essential that I do it.’ That’s why I focus on the war crimes. War crimes are underreported on the whole, or falsely reported. If you can sort out the facts, it matters immensely.”

There is a rush associated with covering a difficult story, he said, and quoted Churchill: “Nothing in the world is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.”

But if a war correspondent is doing something useful, then the ancillary pluses and minuses don’t matter as much, he said. “What you’re doing there at the frontier of civilization and savagery is defining a story and shaping people’s understanding of it, and if you can get it right, you can do something useful. That’s real journalism. That, I think, is worth doing.”

In fact, Gutman said, journalists should be covering more wars, not less.

“That is where change happens, that is the cutting edge of news,” he said. “It’s as simple as that. Everything else is secondary. The risk is secondary, the thrill is secondary.”

Could he be right? Could my depression after coming home be not a sign of a pathological attachment to war but a sane reaction to losing my ability to do challenging and important work?

I called a psychiatrist.

Dr. Frank Ochberg is the chairman of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma and has treated a number of war correspondents for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He didn’t think that there’s such a thing as an addiction to war and said, moreover, that he does not want to discourage journalists from covering conflict.

“I think that we have to leave no stone unturned in trying to evolve past human cruelty,” he said. “I know that the odds are against it, but I hope that journalism can tell truths about cruel, inhuman interactions in a way that gets us past doing it over and over again.”

War correspondents do an important job, he said, for good reasons. There are other professions where people put their lives at risk while performing a valuable service, but journalism has the potential to help the world get to a point where that service is no longer needed, he said.

“That’s my rationale for doing what I do,” he added.

What about the problems that war correspondents have with maintaining relationships?

According to Ochberg, reporters don’t become war correspondents in a vacuum. Many already might have a propensity for risky behavior and problems maintaining relationships. When these problems are exacerbated under stress, it’s no surprise.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a psychological addiction or an inescapable attachment to something bizarre,” he said. “Obviously, people can get exhilarated by dangerous and interesting assignments, but I think to call it addiction is to take it too far.”

And what about the yearning to go back to the front lines?

“There’s a saying, ‘How are you going to keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen Paris?’ “ he said.

Similarly, it’s not surprising that a journalist who’s had a fulfilling, challenging career overseas will want to return to it when faced with less challenging, routine work.

The psychological problems that war correspondents face are all treatable, Dr. Ochberg said. For example, there are a number of antidepressants now on the market, and any one of them will help about 70 percent of the people who use them.

And if the problems are taken care of as they arise, it’s very possible to have a fulfilling career as a war correspondent, he said.

I talked to my husband. He wants to wait until the children are a bit older before going back overseas, but he has no problems with occasional trips. In fact, he himself just got back from a trip to Ireland for a story on industrial distribution.

Meanwhile, I enjoy my work, even if it’s not as challenging as war reporting.

So I’m going to start researching the economy here in Western Massachusetts and practicing writing journalistic narratives. And my husband has started learning Russian.