A MOTHER TELLING STORIES OF WAR. Clarissa Ward is a British-American television journalist. She is currently chief international correspondent for CNN. She was with CBS News, based in London, and before her CBS News position, Ward was a Moscow-based news correspondent for ABC News programs. In 2021 Clarissa Ward won the prestigious Inspiration DVF Award.
You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.
Clarissa Ward, why did you decide to have such a life and such a job?
I had a slightly unconventional childhood. My mother is American, my father is British, and I grew up between New York and London. I went to boarding school in England at a very young age, and that engendered in me an independent spirit and also an ability to adapt to lots of different situations. I was in my final year of studying comparative literature at Yale when 9/11 happened, a moment when history seemed to change its course, and I felt compelled to play more of an active role in the world around me and be more engaged. I had this sense of conviction that underpinning this hideous act of violence was a lack of understanding – or a misunderstanding, a mistranslation, a fundamental issue with communication – and so I felt compelled to go to the furthest corners of the earth and try to understand what was going on better. To try to bring that understanding back home and try to bring a better understanding of my home out to the world.
Where did you begin?
I started out as an intern in Moscow for CNN. I had studied Russian, and at the time I was annoyed because everybody was learning Arabic and that was the focus. I was asking myself, why have I spent all this time visiting Russia, living in Russia, and learning Russian and it’s not a big story? Now I don’t regret it! I realise that it was fortuitous, but I had always been passionate about Russia anyway. Then from there I went to the overnight assignment desk at Fox News, which is the lowest of the lowest jobs. I would go into work at midnight, finish at nine in the morning, and then go to Brooklyn to study Arabic with a woman from Yemen. I kept harassing Fox to send me to Baghdad, and after a year and a half they got so sick of me harassing them and no one else wanted to go anymore – this was a year after the invasion – so eventually they let me go. Then from there I quit Fox and set myself up as a freelancer. I moved to Beirut and was going back and forth to Baghdad.
You reported the death of Saddam Hussein?
By the time I went to Iraq for the first time it was two years into the US occupation, so I was there for the trial, and then the execution of Saddam Hussein. That was my first time on camera, because they had said I could have a try at being on camera and they made me go for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year, which I gladly did. It was an opportunity, and sure enough, a couple of days after Christmas, Saddam Hussein was executed. It was unexpected and everyone was on vacation. It was a baptism by fire. I spent days doing live shots around the clock, and that was the first time where I really felt in my gut that I could do this.
“I’m a storyteller. My job is to tell the story of what’s happening on the ground around me.”
Clarissa Ward, last year you were in Afghanistan when the Americans were leaving. Do you witness historic events all the time?
I don’t think anyone could have predicted how quickly things would spiral in Afghanistan. I was there to show the gains that the Taliban were making, I didn’t think that two weeks into my trip I’d be witnessing history as the Taliban took power and American forces were forced to leave in haste.
More recently you were in Ukraine, in Kiev. Will you go back?
Definitely. Ukraine was an unusual situation because the Americans kept saying this war was going to happen, but most of us who were there and who had spent time in Russia didn’t actually believe the war was going to happen because none of us understood how far Putin had already gone. I had been covering Russia closely, so it’s not that I didn’t understand what Russia was doing. It was only a couple of days before the war started, after Putin gave a speech where he recognized the independence of the Donbas region, that I understood that the war was going to happen and the US wasn’t bluffing and we weren’t being used as instruments in some media strategy. This was really happening.
In a well-known interview with Oprah Winfrey she asked you if you were afraid and you said you’re not fearless but you also talked about the importance of being able to control yourself. How does it work when you are in contact with danger in these situations?
No, I am definitely not fearless. Things always look a little more dangerous from the outside than they feel on the ground because you realise there are lots of shades of danger. However, there’s no question that I’ve been in a lot of very dangerous situations. Your first reaction when you start out doing the job is you become petrified. You’re consumed by fear of death.
Because you are close to the battlefield?
Sometimes it works like that, but it can be a little bit irrational as well, and that’s why you have to make sure that your rational mind is disciplined about being in the driver’s seat. I’m not afraid so much of talking to jihadis if I feel like I can build that rapport. If I can get under the skin of them, if I can understand them, I will take a risk to go and interview them in a way that makes me vulnerable. But I don’t like shelling – even if it’s a kilometer away it makes me feel nervous and jumpy. A lot of it is a visceral thing. It’s not necessarily rational, and that’s the problem with fear. It plays a very important role because it tells you when you’re in a dangerous situation and you need to be thinking about leaving, but it’s not totally logical and it’s very closely related to panic – and the minute you panic then you are really getting yourself into a dangerous situation.
Do you recall a particular situation when this happened?
I remember one time being on the frontline in Syria with some rebel fighters in the northern part of the country, and the rebels started to pull back because they realised they weren’t going to win this battle, and as they pulled back there was a lot of gunfire. My reaction was that I wanted to hide. There was a little farmhouse and I wanted to get under a bed and hide. Luckily I was working with a producer who’s a lot more experienced and he said you can’t do that because the front line is falling behind that farmhouse, now you have to run. But I felt paralyzed. All I wanted to do was hide and wait a few hours. That’s why you have to learn to make sure that your rational mind is in the driver’s seat. I may not want to run right now, because it feels vulnerable and scary and there’s bullets flying, but I have to.
Many of your colleagues have been wounded or lost their lives in this job. Do you often think about them?
Yes, a lot. A lot of them were my friends. When this happens, you think long and hard about what they were doing and is that something you would have done or is it something more dangerous than you would have done? And how did it happen? Exactly why did it happen? In most cases I’m very cautious about the risks that I take. It looks dangerous, but it is a very calculated risk. But then there are some situations, some colleagues of mine who’ve been killed, where it is really random. You’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, and at a certain point when you do this job you have to surrender a little bit to the universe, not in the sense that you don’t try to keep yourself alive – of course that’s the most important thing – but in the sense that you understand that you cannot control everything, and just the same as you could get cancer or get hit by a bus, you could be in Baghdad and …
How do you maintain neutrality as a reporter when covering a war?
The most important thing when you’re covering a war as a news organization is you have to have people covering both sides. It is not possible for the person who is sitting in the trenches with the Ukrainians to report objectively about what’s happening in the Kremlin. And similarly, it’s pretty hard for the person sitting in the Kremlin, surrounded by Russians, to have a really good sense of what’s going on in the trenches with the Ukrainians. You need to always have multiple teams covering conflicts, to make sure that you’re injecting that layering and that nuance. I won’t go so far as to say neutrality, because neutrality doesn’t always serve the course of journalism very well and neutrality can be very difficult for people to relate to. I’m a storyteller. My job is to tell the story of what’s happening on the ground around me.
Do you have enough military knowledge to understand how things are going?
Where I don’t have enough knowledge I’m humble enough to know that I don’t have enough knowledge and to ask people who have a lot more knowledge than I do.
“The beauty of having a front row seat on history is that you’re constantly being humbled; you’re constantly having your assumptions called into question.”
Clarissa Ward, what’s going to happen in the war between Ukraine and Russia?
My fear is that there will be a long conflict that will go on for many years and will be a grinding war of attrition, a stalemate. It’s possible that within that timeframe there will be pauses. Right now, we see the Ukrainians launching an offensive in the southern part of the country to try to take back Russian held territory. That is definitely an inflexion point – and an important one if they’re successful in doing that – but I don’t see an easy exit ramp to the border conflict and I don’t see that either side is meaningfully invested in peace talks or in finding a pathway.
Russia figured they would invade Ukraine in a few days?
Yes, they did, and that was a spectacular miscalculation. I was listening primarily to what American intelligence was telling us, which was that Kiev would fall in 2 to 3 days, and here we are more than six months later with the Ukrainians launching a massive counter-offensive. The Russians have been completely pushed out of the area to the north of Kiev up to the Belarusian border, and even in Donbas where they have made gains it’s been incremental. It hasn’t been a massive swift operation.
How can you explain that?
In a number of ways. First, the Ukrainian military was vastly underestimated in terms of heart and skill – and heart in my experience, covering war for all these years, makes a big difference. You saw that with the Taliban fighting against America. You have one side that is existentially, spiritually, so invested in the fight, and really willing to die for it. That gives them a unique power against an enemy. In this case, a lot of Russian young guys were thinking, what are we doing here? This doesn’t really make sense. This is not what we thought it was going to be. Then they were beset by problems with logistics. They were smart enough to press the pause button and to pull their forces out of Kiev, to reconstitute and focus on the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. They were able to quickly learn from their own mistakes and try to reframe the battleground, but even there they’re up against it.
These things are unpredictable, but were you taken by surprise?
I’m always taken by surprise. That’s part of why I do this job and why I love it. I don’t want to do a job where I feel like I know it all. The beauty of having a front row seat on history is that you’re constantly being humbled; you’re constantly having your assumptions called into question. You’re constantly having to rethink your understanding of certain issues, because the world doesn’t work as you think.
Now you have two young sons. Are they worried when they see you on television?
They see me on television, but I’m lucky, they’re very young so they don’t really fully understand what war is. They’re two and four, so I’m in this sweet spot.
Has the fact that you have children and responsibility as a mother changed you?
Yes, I try to take fewer risks and to travel less, but I spend as little time as possible in the office and I do travel a fair amount. When the job calls for it, I’ll do 11 weeks in Ukraine. I went home twice for little breaks, but it was the longest I’ve ever been away from my family and it was really hard. Sometimes you are cognizant of the fact that this is a really important moment in history, and that’s my job and I feel a sense of duty, but being a mother is the most important thing in my life, of course. I also see how motherhood has impacted my work and the way I tell stories, and the stories I choose to tell, and I have this sense, rightly or wrongly, that it’s important to have mothers telling stories of war and going into conflict zones, because for a very long time we viewed conflict through a very white male prism – which made sense in the context of its time but now we do have more women doing this job and more people from all different kinds of backgrounds.
Nowadays is there less discrimination between men and women?
Yes. Lots of women do this job. I often get asked if it is hard to do this job as a woman and I actually reject that. I think women are very much equal to men in this industry, and we stand on the shoulders of giants – the women of the generation before us who paved the way for us. There are a lot of women covering war and working in newsrooms and calling the shots and I don’t feel in any way at a disadvantage. If anything, I’m keenly aware of the fact that in many societies, especially conservative Muslim societies, I have access to 50% of the population that my male Western colleagues don’t have access to.
How much is the Western world and democracy in danger?
The most momentous things that have happened in my time on earth, and certainly in my adult life, were 9/11 – which was the beginning of my journey as a journalist – and the invasion of Ukraine this last year. Both of those, in very different ways, were harbingers of the immense challenges that liberal democracies face in this moment. I never want to be pessimistic, but these challenges are profound and existential in nature. I have watched authoritarianism climb up over the past couple of decades that I’ve been doing this work.
Recent news of the death of Mikhail Gorbachev was received with coldness in Russia, considering that they would not exist as they are today if he didn’t do what he did?
Not only in Russia. It was the attitude of many people. In China, officially, there was just a statement saying sympathy to the family, but if you went on Chinese social media the narrative was that Gorbachev was almost a traitor, that he precipitated the downfall of one of the great socialist countries of all time. Too often in the West we make the mistake of assuming that others think the same way we do and use the same logic, and have the same dreams and aspirations and desires for their societies. It’s really important to break those bubbles down and understand that there are a lot of different people out there. When I lived in Russia for the first time, in 2002 during my internship, you would get into the elevator in your apartment building and there would be an old lady moaning about the fact that the elevators never work anymore but they worked so beautifully under Stalin. That kind of nostalgia never really left Russia. Obviously it has soared to new heights.
Clarissa Ward in Sudan for CNN
Clarissa Ward in Afghanistan for CNN 2022
Clarissa Ward inKabul for CNN. Photo credit Brent Swails
Clarissa Ward and Lidia.Ukraine 2022
Clarissa Ward in Ukraine for CNN
Clarissa Ward in Kharkiv for CNN .April 2022. Photo credit Brent Swails
“I really try to stay focused on the idea that my job is not to solve these problems. My job is to shine a light on them.”
Clarissa Ward, do you think you will soon be obliged to go to Taiwan?
What I hear from people whose opinions I respect and who have a deeper knowledge of China than I do, is that President Xi will have seen what’s happened with Russia and how the Ukrainian conflict has played out and will arguably put his plans on the back burner for now for any potential invasion of Taiwan. Which is not to say that it won’t happen at some point in time. It’s just to say that it has become clearer that it is easier said than done. Russia was very quickly humiliated by the initial failures of its invasion, and China would probably like to avoid that. China has not really fought any wars in a very long time, so I can’t see it happening in the short term future, but I am often proven wrong. China is not going to do something right now, but possibly would in the future. America has to think long and hard about what its response would be and what response would make sense.
America was definitely on a path of retreat, very much mired in its own internal divisions and political disagreements and less interested in playing an active role, as it had traditionally, to be the leader of the free world or the leader of the West. Ukraine has forced a pivot again, because it does portend a real threat to the whole system of liberal democracies, and you see in the US broad bipartisan support for the efforts so far that the US has made to support the Ukrainians. But ultimately the US is at a kind of inflexion point in terms of the depth of bipartisanship, in terms of how it sees itself in the world and what kind of a role it wants to take going forward. Allies have been very reassured by the role that it’s played in Ukraine, but whether it’s in Europe or in the Middle East there’s a sense with the US that it’s capricious, because you’re bound by a democratic political system where every four years you have a presidential election, every two years you have the midterm elections, and so promises that are made and alliances that are forged can be turned on their heads. This is the nature of democracies, they are messy, constantly evolving, changing. I’m sure there have been many democratically elected leaders who look at someone like President Putin and think it would be so much easier if I could just decide this is what we’re doing and I don’t have to compromise to get it through the House and the Senate or through parliament.
Nobody knows what’s going on in Syria now. News coverage simply moves from one conflict zone to another?
I spent so much time in Syria, and there was so much heartache that I witnessed and experienced there. It is hard when the public’s attention moves on, but you have to try not to be defeatist about it, and try to find new ways of telling good stories. It’s okay if Ukraine isn’t on the front page every day. The public doesn’t necessarily need to be up to speed or au fait with every single incremental development in towns in Donbas that they’ve never heard of. What matters in war is that you continue to hold people accountable, hold feet to the fire, and make people aware when it is a pivotal moment and they do need to pay attention.
Before this we had another very different war with the coronavirus. For months the news was only about that. Then coronavirus didn’t exist anymore because the war in Ukraine is night and day. Are the news media too obsessive?
Ultimately the news and the media are reflections of how we operate as human beings. It is much harder for us to be actively engaged with ten different topics at the same time. It is much easier for us to focus on one or two big events or things that are happening and give them a decent amount of our attention and not necessarily be focused on all the other things. You get to the stage when we need to be talking about the food crisis in Africa, we need to be talking about the desperate situation of Afghanistan, the desperate situation in Yemen, about climate and Lebanon, and what you end up doing is you overwhelm people and then they just shut down and tune out. It’s obviously not a perfect system, but there is so much information out there now that whatever it is that you’re passionate about or that speaks to or you want to learn more about, you can go deep and find that level of coverage somewhere. But if you are a major news outlet you can’t cover everything.
In this Ukraine situation there is one fear that touches everyone, the fear of nuclear accident or conflict. Is there a real danger?
I’m not enough of an expert to be able to say categorically no, there’s no danger of a nuclear disaster. The IAEA is in Zaporizhzhya to try to determine just this. It’s obvious that whenever you have parties actively at war in a place where there are nuclear plants, that’s dangerous. I don’t think that we have crossed the Rubicon yet, whereby Russia is – and I think that some people would disagree with me here – an irrational actor. Where they would be willing to use nukes because they feel like it and they feel like that’s the only thing that could actually end this. I still think that President Putin is a rational actor within the schema of his universe, and so that to me has not become a pressing fear yet. What concerns me is that the longer things drag on and the longer you go in this kind of grinding war of attrition, the worse you see the deterioration of relations between the West and Russia. Now we are talking about cancelling tourism visas for Russians. It all moves in a very negative direction, and once you are on that path and there is no exit ramp, you are raising the specter of things devolving out of control for a number of different reasons. It could be one small thing. A leak, a soldier, or a dramatic assassination, or something that fuels some kind of a response, God knows. God forbid! But where you’re playing with fire, there’s always a chance.
You are the author of the book On All Fronts, recently published by Penguin. You live in war and in peace, a double life. Is it difficult to go to the front and then to come back home?
When you come home from war, usually it takes your soul a few days or a few weeks to catch up with your body. You’re going to be geographically back in a safe space and still feel the fear, the restlessness, the irritability, the exhaustion, the numbness that one so often experiences in conflict zones. You never really perfect the art of moving back and forth, of shuttling different worlds, but what you learn to do is accept. To make a facetious comparison, it’s like jet lag. You’re never going to figure out a way to get rid of jetlag. Jetlag is just there. What you learn to do is cope with it and find ways to cushion the landing a little bit and make it easier to make that transition. Part of that is accepting that there are going to be periods of numbness, irritability, depression, anxiety, stress – dark negative feelings. You’re not going to be able to do this work for 20 years and never have to confront those. They are there. That’s part of the work.
Are you as excited today to be on the front line as you were at the beginning?
It’s not necessarily that I’m excited to be on the front line because I don’t love danger, I really don’t. But I’m excited to go to places that are hard to get to and tell the stories of people who are too often overlooked or not listened to and their voices aren’t heard. I love my job. It’s the best job in the world.
Probably being ultimately friends, why do Russian boys want to kill Ukrainian boys and vice versa?
That’s the real head scratcher in all this. I understand from the Ukrainians’ point of view that they’re committed to defending their homeland. It’s harder to understand from a Russian perspective why young Russian guys from Novosibirsk want to go into Chernihiv and kill people, but you can’t underestimate the powerful effect of the indoctrination that goes on in Russian state media. They have really successfully captured the imagination of many Russians by framing this as a continuation of the battle against Nazism and fascism in the Second World War. Many of these young Russian soldiers believe that they are liberating people from evil, murderous wars.
What about their families?
Never underestimate people’s ability to actively buy into lies that make them feel better. A lot of people in Russia just believe what they’re told on state media. Other people are smart enough to know that even if they don’t believe all of it, they’re not going to say anything out loud. And then there’s still another group of people who don’t agree with the war but who are offended by the West’s response to it, offended by the punishing effect of sanctions.
Is there a lot of fear among Ukrainian civilians?
There is fear, but the Ukrainians are some of the bravest, most resilient people I’ve ever seen, honestly. The minute Russian forces started to pull out of that area in the north of Kiev you saw huge lines on the border of people coming back into Ukraine, because even though there’s still a war and even though it’s still dangerous Ukrainians want to be in Ukraine and they want to participate and volunteer and play a role in the country on some level. What’s interesting from the Russian side is that the war in Ukraine is not even called a war, it’s called a special military operation and it’s not on the forefront of people’s minds. A lot of Russians are going to parties and enjoying their summer and not focusing at all on it.
Sanctions will touch them?
There are two elements to that. First of all, Putin is betting that the Russians have a much higher pain threshold than the West does, and they do. I have observed this in Russia since I first started going there when I was 16 years old. They have in-built into their psyche this idea of struggle, survive, hunker down. They’re willing to do that. They’re willing to struggle. They’re willing to suffer, and they’re willing to do what it takes. That is a question that the West will be confronting. So far, there’s been huge support, but will that change with a cold, grim winter ahead?
Are you about to go back to the front?
I just got back from Afghanistan. I will go to Ukraine again at some point. There are a lot of things out there right now that I have my eyes on, so let’s see.
In an instant global world do war correspondents have a diplomatic, even a peace developing role, and do you try to ensure that your reporting points towards reconciliation?
I found doing this as long as I have that when you take on grand ideas about what your role is and think it’s my role to stop the war in Syria because I’m documenting atrocities and the world has to care and the world has to jump in, you lose the thread of what it is that you’re actually supposed to be doing. You become much more attached to the outcome of your work, which is dangerous potentially, because you can’t control events and you can’t control the way your work is used or interpreted. I really try to stay focused on the idea that my job is not to solve these problems. My job is to shine a light on them. It’s to allow people a platform to have a voice and to hold people accountable in positions of power. At the same time, I do think we have a duty as journalists to engage in responsible journalism and not to pander to the lowest common denominator simply because we think it’s going to get more clicks or it’s going to get more attention. That is occasionally tough because there’s a lot of pressure in this instant gratification information world that we live in to deliver hot takes, sexy angles and catchy click bait. But I don’t feel that that does service to the fundamental mission of what it is that we’re supposed to be doing. There are ways to tell stories where they are compelling, where they are vivid, where they are relatable, without trivializing issues or simplifying them, or trying to whip people up into an immense state of bother.
Have you seen many horrors that you can’t even show in television?
We can’t show dead bodies, or if we do show dead bodies we can’t shoot faces, and we wouldn’t want to shoot children – but there are instances where it is important. I did a story after the sarin gas attack in northern Syria in the town of Khan Sheikhoun and an extraordinarily brave Syrian journalist had captured the aftermath. You see children gasping their last breaths. In that instance, when you are confronted with that level of evil, you have to show it so that people understand how serious it is, what evil we are living with.
How is your relationship with the soldiers you are with and who are doing the fighting?
It’s always a tricky situation because sometimes you would be with soldiers texting you and then that influences your reporting because you don’t want to say negative things about them because they’re protecting you. I noticed that a lot in Iraq, or when we would be embedded with Americans in Afghanistan. It’s a challenge. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t tell that story. It just means you have to then also get out of that bubble and tell the story of the civilians, and get out of that bubble and tell the story of the other side, and get out of that bubble…
Are you well accepted?
In Ukraine we are. Western journalists have been embraced by Ukrainian people, Ukrainian authorities, and Ukrainian soldiers. They’re going to try to limit your access where they think your life might be in danger, of course.
Are you treated more or less like soldiers?
No, you’re not treated like soldiers because soldiers are always a little bit guarded with journalists. They understand that fundamentally our job is not to make them look good. Our job is to report on what the situation is. It’s different with different conflicts, but certainly American soldiers were savvy enough to spend enough time with the press that they were always a little guarded and cautious with journalists.
Clarissa Ward, thank you.
Images courtesy of CNN.
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