War Teaches Lessons About Fear and Courage

Harvard University: Nieman Reports, Summer 2006

Working as a photojournalist, I’ve been through war zones several times in the past five years. I was there at the height of the war in Afghanistan, during the fall of Konduz when the last Taliban stronghold in northern Afghanistan was destroyed. I was embedded with the U.S. Marines during the invasion of Iraq, and later worked unilaterally at a time when the sectarian violence intensified.

One month after 9/11, I made my first trip into a war zone when I traveled to Afghanistan for The Dallas Morning News.  In preparing for the assignment, I talked with David Leeson, my colleague at the paper who had experienced war before. “Are you scared?” he asked.

“No, should I be?” I replied.

He tilted his head to one side and arched his brows, as his lips curled up at the edges. But there was no humor in his expression, only irony.

At the time I was too wrapped up in the details of the preparations to think, much less to reflect on fear. In time, I would know its meaning because I would recognize it as a part of me, not unlike my sense of familiarity with my appendages. In war zones, I would learn about another feeling, one I have yet to define but seems the opposite of fear; that feeling is a sense of my aliveness. And somewhere between these two feelings resides a place I think of as courage. I now believe that without courage, a person never can attain that feeling of being vigorously alive. Or so it has seemed in my life.

 

Understanding fear

Other than in my dreams, the first time I came face-to-face with deep and penetrating fear was during a battle in northern Afghanistan. It was Thanksgiving Day, 2001 and I was following an opposition movement with my young translator, who went by the single name, Esmatullah. I called him Esmat, and I learned in the time we spent together of his moral courage, as I explored my own. After eight hours of tagging behind the mujaheddin – waiting, moving forward, waiting, then finally moving forward again – an eerie quiet settled over the area and a tactile tension seemed to suck oxygen from the air we were trying to breathe.

Esmat lagged behind me further and further, as he walked in a zigzag line, muttering to himself.  This seemed an unlikely time for him to check out mentally and I didn’t want him to suffer, so I advised him that I did not pay him to risk his life. If he was not comfortable with the situation, he should go back. But he insisted I was his responsibility and if anything should happen to me, then the burden would be on his soul.  I explained that he was not ultimately accountable for my choices and that I took full responsibility for my decisions. I gave him a fresh business card, advised him to contact my boss if I was injured or killed and told him where my money was hidden.

Within minutes, a loud and chaotic battle, as only I had seen in the movies, unfolded before our eyes. In the distance were explosions from rocket-propelled grenades. Colored tracers lit up the scene and men scurried for cover in the flat, dusty landscape.  Soon the high-pitched whiz of bullets resounded in my ears.  I was barely able to focus my eyes ahead when my overworked brain registered the fact that armed men were running towards us. Instead of carrying their weapons pointing forward, they were slung on their shoulders and a panic palpably consumed their faces. If the mujaheddin were running away, I figured, things must be bad. 

I knew I must take photographs, recognizing that I was witnessing an amazing scene. Trembling, I put my camera to my face but my muscles would not cooperate. My pictures were so blurry that I quickly gave up and ran behind the Afghan fighters. I had no training for war so I did what I’d seen Vic Morrow do on the television shows of my childhood. I ran low.  And when I heard a mortar go off close by, I plastered my body on the nearest mud wall and waited for the resounding explosion before I continued.

By the time we had reached the end of the village where we could safely get cover, each breath seared my lungs. I turned to Esmat in relief and said, “Oh my goodness, my feet are killing me!”  In the gravest of terms, he said, “No Cheryl, you are killing you.” I looked at him and couldn’t help but laugh at this young man, who at that moment seemed larger than life.

That day taught me the meaning of fear, but I also learned something else as every cell in my body screamed with life. At that moment there was a sense that I was, as all of us are, the sum of each primordial organism that has endured through billions of years of evolution to become the complex units of cells known as a human being. My heart – the preserver of that life – was pounding so loudly in my chest that it echoed in my ears.

In silence, we trudged back to the front lines, as I contemplated my epiphany: Though paradoxical, I realized then that we are no closer to life than at moments when we are so close to death. Our existence, so easily extinguished, and our death, are not so opposite as we might think.

In war, emotions and choices become exponentially multiplied. Esmat’s decision to follow me despite the danger has always overwhelmed with me with awe.  We don’t see that kind of raw courage in our day-to-day lives in the United States.  It’s rare that we are called upon to make those kinds of decisions of deep and final consequence. Yet he made the choice not only to risk his life to look after my safety, but also to carry the burden of my death if that should have happened to me. And this, coming from a young man half my age, from a culture foreign to mine, from someone I barely knew. The lesson Esmat taught me that day has humbled and haunted me ever since.

 

Bearing witness in battle

It would be over a year later when I would find myself in Iraq, covering the U.S.-led invasion as an embedded journalist.  The day, April 4, 2003, is indelibly stamped in my memory. Riding in an amphibious assault vehicle, I watched as young Marines loaded cartridges in M-16 rifles and fired off round after round while we took both artillery and gun fire in an ambush in Al Aziziyah, just south of Baghdad.  The earth shook from the violence and gunpowder filled our nostrils.  I was numb from exhaustion and my senses were reeling from the activity.

Soon, confusion began to grip the Marines in my group.  I gleaned that a civilian had gotten caught in the crossfire and he was injured and trapped in his burning minivan.  I knew that the chances of the vehicle exploding made helping him extremely treacherous.  But he was very close to our vehicle and a couple of the men felt compelled to jump out. 

It was a moment of reckoning for me. Would I stay inside the safety of our armored cocoon or should I get out and risk the battlefield and the burning vehicle to make a picture?  I was there to cover a war, I mentally prodded myself. There was no time to write down the pros and the cons of the situation, to consider the percentages of risk, to weigh life’s deeper truths.  In a fraction of a second, I determined that the situation was worthy of my life, so I rushed out behind the men.

My mind and my camera were in sync. Perhaps my previous exposure to battle violence falsely inoculated me from injury. I moved quickly and methodically to make images of Marines saving the life of an aged civilian Iraqi, even as some of their own had just been killed in battle.  Within minutes of making pictures of the rescue, I photographed somber faces as a Marine sergeant was carried away on a cot.

Witnessing efforts like this makes it easier to find the strength to look past one’s fears. Somehow, the Marines’ sacrifice was multiplied by the conditions, and I felt compelled to look beyond myself to record them in their moment of bravery.  Ultimately, I found that my courage had simply been a by-product of a moment whose significance was greater than me.

 

Returning from war

My greatest challenge with my war coverage has been at home, in the months after my last trip to Iraq as I deal with the ongoing personal effects of my war experience.  Two weeks after my return to the United States, on August 2, 2005, a dear man and a friend, New York freelance journalist Steven Vincent, was killed.  Steven and I lived in the same hotel and often shared meals and many heated political discussions.  His death violated me; his death could so easily have been my own.  It unhinged my sense of safety and well-being.

I search for the courage to not fall into a moat of helplessness, to draw up my inner fortitude against the violence. I search for forgiveness at those times when I do feel weak and victimized.  Months of quiet and solitude have been my path to peace. Only the passage of time has replenished my creativity and will.

Courage, I’ve learned, means having the strength to recognize and accept our weaknesses. It means having the wherewithal to stay on course when we believe in something. Courage is pursuing our dreams, and it is doing what is right when it could cost us our lives.

Courage is telling our mothers that we are going to cover a war, and that we have chosen to go of our own volition.