War correspondent Michael Ware returns to career that did its best to bury him
It wasn't the memory of surviving 10 bombings, who knows how many snipers, a near beheading or the subsequent breakdown that silenced Michael Ware, it was the prospects of a young girl he barely knows.
She'd just been made school captain at her Melbourne college which is almost too much for him and his non-stop, expletive-filled banter grinds to a halt.
Her father was one of Wares' closest mates – more family really – during his long stint as Time magazine and then CNN's man in Iraq. As a fixer, he'd been the local who drove the Australian journo around, organised meetings and kept him alive. Right up until he was kidnapped and tortured by an al Qaeda squad who wanted his help in snatching Ware for a second time and finishing the job they'd started. It took five days before they gave up.
"This is a very sensitive issue with me, it's very raw. I honestly can't explain why ... but even now I find it very difficult to see them and be with them. I feel unworthy of everything they did; I'm humbled and overwhelmed by it. I might have got them (to Australia, along with several other families) but I'll owe them more than I can ever give till the day I die ... but yeah, his daughter was just made school captain and I really don't know how to respond to that ... so proud."
Then, silence, followed by more silence.
"Ah, hello? Are you there?... Hello?"
A few more moments: "Yeah, moving on ..."
So, this is Michael Ware, a self-confessed "droning, nasal-accented Aussie" with a reputation for extreme-risk journalism who is finally making a return to the career that did its very best to bury him.
If he's alive he's a very different man. His willingness to engage with all sides of the mad-headed conflict put him in the crosshairs of everyone, the United States even accused him of treason after he filmed an al Qaeda motor attack. Then there was the day al Qaeda did grab him. Kneeling in front of the black flag with a knife poised to cleave his head once his masked captors figured out how his video camera worked, only to be released when his driver warned them Ware was under the protection of a powerful local warlord whose vengeance would be terminal. Yet it was the last roadside bomb, just before he was to head home, that caused the most damage, the least of which may be the loss of his senses of smell and taste.
You'd think repeated brushes with death would put you off adventure. Not so much. Ware now fronts his own show, Uncensored, for National
Geographic, a series that has him riding with Putin's bikies, discussing ritualistic murder with suspicious New Guinean highlanders and swimming in the Bay of Pigs. Sure there are already lots of blokes trotting the globe doing much the same thing, but as a man committed to the unvarnished truth, Ware's taken the gonzo approach with no script, no second takes, no pre-arranged stunts and with every failing exposed.
The intention, he says, is to create "compelling" television where the viewer feels part of the team.
This team connection has been important to him since his days of playing rugby at Brisbane Grammar School. A robust hooker with a growing reputation, he'd been celebrating his selection to play for Queensland against Auckland in 1990 when a guy ran a stop sign and drove into his car.
The collision left Ware with injuries to his head and back, a badly busted shoulder and bruising to his brain: "I'd wanted to be a professional rugby player long before the game even went pro and to have that taken away from me, it broke my soul, it really did."
Law was his fallback option and he soon found himself assisting Tony Fitzgerald (of Fitzgerald inquiry into police corruption fame) on the Queensland Supreme Court, but "on the first Friday of my first week I knew it wasn't for me".
It was his mum who then set him on a crash course with al Qaeda. She ran a sandwich bar and quite enjoyed updating her customers on her son's life story. One customer, who turned out to be the chief of staff at Brisbane's Courier-Mail, figured this young bloke might have what it takes and called him to offer a one-year trial with the paper. "Well," says Ware, "I'd done some writing with the Uni paper, bashed out some poetry and written a few appalling short stories, so yeah, I thought I'd give it a crack."
In 2000 he signed on with Time magazine, and after a stint in East Timor was sent to Afghanistan before arriving in northern Iraq in 2003 where he witnessed the death of Australian cameraman, Paul Moran. Undeterred he remained in Iraq fulltime until 2010 when the snowballing trauma became too much. If you need any convincing of the hardship, terror and atrocities he endured, you might want to check out his documentary Only the Dead, which draws on everything he filmed with his ever-present video camera.
To hear them, his stories seem to carry heavy responsibility. After all he refused to leave Iraq until he'd got out every one of his friends who wanted to leave.
"Responsibility? You might say that, but really it's been a privilege ... I've had a front row seat to history and met some of the great figures of modern times. So I consider myself to have had a blessed professional life, if just that I've made it this far when so many others – some much better than me – didn't. That can be a lot to live with, sometimes it's like you're not living so much as surviving and every veteran will know what I'm talking about; the homecoming can be harder than the war."
Obviously Ware's life has been an extraordinary tale (I haven't even mentioned the scandalous Baghdad love triangle he fell into with television presenter Lara Logan or the drunken interview with All Black legend Zinzan Brooke at the 2007 Rugby World Cup or the ... oh, you get the picture) and it hasn't slipped the notice of Hollywood. Unfortunately for them, his is the last story he wants to tell. Ware even held up his documentary for two years until he was comfortable about appearing in it. It doesn't help his chances that since setting up his own film and television production company he's been embedded in Los Angeles.
"This is yet another thing I never expected to fall into ... I don't know why but Americans have gifted me such an amazing place in their culture and tell their stories. And seeing as it's [expletive deleted, he swears an awful lot] amazing that after everything I can still walk and talk at the same time, it would be wrong of me to refuse the opportunity."
Not only that, he might have found himself having to explain his decision to that Melbourne school girl and that's a burden he'd rather avoid.
Uncensored is on the National Geographic channel, Wednesdays, 9.30pm.
- Sunday Star Times