Why does a reporter go to a war zone? Is it careerism? Vanity? Thrill-seeking? Or is it to push personal boundaries, to manufacture some sort of rite of passage that has been mostly lost in contemporary society? Probably, it’s a combustible mixture of all of these.
There have been a number of memoirs published in the last few years by reporters who have been to Iraq, but few have gone as far in trying to understand their own motivations as freelance journalist David Axe does his new book, War Fix. The culmination of six trips he took to Iraq in the span of one brutal, intense year, from January 2005 to February 2006, War Fix takes the form of a graphic novel, allowing Axe to express in two media at once the physical and emotional toll war takes on an individual’s life. And it succeeds brilliantly.
When the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003, Axe was covering county government for his local paper in Columbia, South Carolina, a gig for which he says he had little talent and even less enthusiasm. Iraq was his ticket out. He says that he begged his editors for months to send him to Iraq, “And they were like, ‘You want to go to Iraq? Are you nuts?’” Finally, he convinced them to send him for the January 2005 elections, and, knowing they didn’t want or need a full-time correspondent in Iraq, tendered his resignation with the promise of delivering the stories for which they were sending him. He’s been working as a freelancer ever since.
The reasons reporters choose to cover war zones are varied and complicated. Some go to run away from something, others go to find something, still others go to prove themselves or take part, even at one remove, in the struggle. Axe’s motivations seem to include all of these. Or more simply, as he says in the book, “I just want to watch.” The book never attempts to answer definitively why Axe wanted so badly to go to war, but captures the fear and excitement he felt being able to participate in an event that is infinitely larger than the sum of its parts.
The book begins in 1991 with Axe as a child glued to televised images of bombs falling on Baghdad during the first Gulf War, even as his mother tells him, “It’s bedtime, David, you can watch the war tomorrow.” Cut to March 2003, and Axe is again sitting transfixed in front of the television, on the corner of the bed he shares with his girlfriend, who wakes up in the middle of the night, telling him, “David? Turn off the stupid war and come to bed.”
I brought these images up with him when we met last month for lunch as he was passing through New York, and asked him where the fascination with war had come from. “I always wanted to go to war, either as a journalist or some other capacity. I had this attitude of, when am I gonna get another chance to cover a war? I also had a lot of buddies who were in the Army, so I saw the thing from that side, and I was jealous.”
He said the idea to do a graphic novel about his experiences in Iraq came before he left on his first trip, and he met with the book’s illustrator Steve Olexa to plan the project. “We didn’t know exactly what was going to happen, obviously, since I didn’t have an itinerary, I didn’t have intentions, so in the vaguest possible sense we could shape the story in advance,” he says. “There’s a number of different tacks you can take in doing this sort of memoir, and we decided to explore why I was so bent on doing this. I still don’t really know, but let’s explore why I’m so driven to get to this miserable place at the risk of my own life.”