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The indomitable Michael Ware: A Renaissance man forged at BGS
Forced to his knees on a Baghdad street, a knife hovered at the ready, his Islamist State captors were impatient to remove his head, if only they could get his video camera to work to capture the act.
Former war correspondent and BGS Old Boy Michael Ware ’86 became the voice of the Iraq war for Americans, as he made the world’s deadliest war zones his home through the 2000s. Working for Time magazine and CNN in Afghanistan and Iraq, Ware witnessed the birth of ISIS and endured three kidnappings, including the attack that saw him moments from execution.
During his most recent project last year, he rode with The Night Wolves, a pro-Putin motorcycle gang; explored witchcraft in PNG; and interviewed Iranian spies as part of an eight-episode National Geographic series. Uncensored with Michael Ware appeared on television screens in 171 countries and in 45 languages.
But rewind more than three decades to his teenage years, and it was at BGS that Ware gained the confidence to take risks and chase his dreams. Having earned an academic scholarship to attend the School in 1982, it took some time to find his place. “To arrive on day one, looking around this incredible school with over 1000 kids, all who looked smarter, faster, bigger and stronger than me, that first term was quite intimidating,” he said.
“But what turned it around socially for me was the first season of rugby training and games. It was that experience through team sport at BGS that helped me feel like I’d arrived at the School, it gave me a sense of belonging. BGS rugby became something that was very powerful as a social agent in my early years, it really made a deep and lasting impact on me. From the discipline to the camaraderie and sense of brotherhood, rugby was important.”
From there Ware said he developed other friends and networks and involved himself in everything from drama and debating to music, rowing and astronomy. A BGS all-rounder, Ware was equally adept inside and outside the classroom.
“I distinctly remember in Modern History being introduced to the concept of the Renaissance man,” he said. “The sort of guy that is well-rounded with a poet’s heart and a warrior’s physicality and sense of adventure. This idea really had an impact on me at BGS and that’s when I think I started to develop as a young adult.
“Even in my later life and later career in our modern wars, when I see the professional military on their front lines, these are very well-rounded individuals, some of these commanders particularly. They are truly warrior scholars or warrior poets. That’s something that resonated with me starting from way back when in a classroom in 1982. It’s an idea that I’ve used to fashion my whole life and it’s an idea I found at BGS.”
After graduating from BGS, Ware went on to gain Law and Political Science degrees at The University of Queensland and play rugby for the Queensland Reds. A major car accident interrupted his rugby career and led to years of surgeries and physiotherapy, but he fought his way back into the Reds team, only to retire after three games when he realised it wasn’t for him.
An accidental journalist, he first worked as a clerk for Justice Tony Fitzgerald, before a chat between his mum and The Courier-Mail chief of staff led Ware to taking on a year-long trial as a journalist. His talent was instantly obvious and after just five years as a journalist and following a key assignment in East Timor, he was offered a job at Time magazine.
The September 11 terror attack in America changed Ware’s life as he went on to spend almost a decade in the Middle East, working for Time and then CNN. He said he resisted the move from written to television journalism for years until he discovered the power of the broadcast medium.
“I would go into meetings with insurgents and death squads and members of the Islamic State armed only with a notebook and pen,” he said. “But a camera instantly changes the dynamic. I would write 10 words in Time magazine and those words would sink like a stone, but then I would do a guest spot on an American network and say those same 10 words verbatim and at the Pentagon the next day the Secretary of Defence would have to respond to them.”
In September 2004 he was kidnapped by Islamic State, when they had started live television broadcasts of beheadings. Islamic State had taken a key zone in Baghdad and from there they could launch rockets and mortars into the US and Australian embassies, the American Command and Iraqi Parliament. But no one knew they had done so.
“The local insurgents had turned this particular area into a no-go zone for the Americans,” he said. “It was dubbed Purple Heart Lane, that’s how bad it was. The guys doing that were hard-core guerrilla nationalist fighters but then the Islamic State hijacked it and took it over. I went in with a camera to confirm that but was spotted and nabbed. After they clawed the camera out of my hand they positioned me underneath an execution banner with guys in masks and a knife.”
Intent on capturing Ware’s beheading on his own camera, the group argued about how to work it. That’s when he was saved by a local Iraqi insurgent group. “They said if you kill this foreigner he’s our guest and you’ll be dishonouring us and we’re going to launch a turf war that you are not ready for right now,” he said. “Six months later they would have been strong enough to do whatever they wanted to me.”
He was effectively saved by bad guys from other bad guys, but said the nature of war blurred the lines between the good and bad. The scars of war are permanent for Ware. He developed post-traumatic stress disorder that led to nightmares, flashbacks and depression. The bombings severely impacted his senses of smell and taste and he no longer remembers names and faces like he once did.
But war has given Ware clarity on what really matters in life. “One of the many illuminations I gained from war about the nature of human existence is the true story of trauma,” he said. “You can’t un-see what you’ve seen and you can’t un-live what you’ve lived. In war when you are facing life or death everything becomes crystal clear; what really matters and what does not and who really matters and who does not. You find out who you really are.”
“You can’t pretend to be someone you’re not and for me that was a kind of purification that I found compelling. Not to mention that as a journalist, the war and combat meant witnessing history unfolding right before my eyes. It’s a rare privilege to be able to witness history from a front row seat.”
“The price of going to war or seeing war is that it will never leave you. In my experience, with what the war cost me and particularly what it cost my family, that’s the most insurmountable cost. It nonetheless feels worth it to be able to see the world through these new eyes and to appreciate the things that truly matter. That is a gift. Even if I walk forever with ghosts, it’s a gift that I wouldn’t relinquish.”
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