Out of the War Zone: A Conversation Between Paul Watson and Dan O’Brien
Dan O’Brien is an internationally produced and published playwright and poet whose recognition includes a Guggenheim Fellowship in Drama, two PEN America Awards, and the Fenton Aldeburgh Prize. In 2021, he published his fourth poetry collection, Our Cancers: A Chronicle in Poems, with Acre Books, and a collection of his essays on playwriting, A Story That Happens: On Playwriting, Childhood, & Other Traumas, with CB Editions in London and Dalkey Archive Press in the US.
O’Brien’s play about Watson, The Body of an American, received the PEN America Award, the Edward M. Kennedy Prize, The Horton Foote Prize, and the Weissberger Award, and was shortlisted for an Evening Standard Drama Award in the UK. The play received an off-Broadway premiere at the Cherry Lane Theatre (where it was a New York Times Critic’s Pick), co-produced by Primary Stages and Hartford Stage, and a European premiere at the Gate Theatre in London. O’Brien’s poetry collection about Watson, War Reporter (2013), published in the US and the UK, received the Fenton Aldeburgh Poetry Prize and was shortlisted for a Forward Prize.
The following conversation is an edited transcript of a FaceTime call in mid-March, with Watson at home in Vancouver and O’Brien at home in Los Angeles. The call was initiated by O’Brien, who wanted to check in on Watson’s thoughts about the psychological cost of war reporting, especially in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
PAUL WATSON: Wow. You look like Steven Spielberg.
DAN O’BRIEN: Well, I’ve been cutting my own hair.
PAUL: Good to see you. I miss you.
DAN: Me too. How long’s it been?
PAUL: Before the pandemic. Over Skype or Zoom or — like this. You asked me to beam in for rehearsals.
DAN: Right. This was a workshop of my second play about you.
PAUL: That’s right. What was it called?
DAN: New Life.
PAUL: New Life. Is it getting done?
DAN: The pandemic seems to have killed its momentum.
PAUL: That’s too bad.
DAN: Maybe one day.
PAUL: The pandemic has done weird things to people’s minds. And it’s probably just spending a lot of time alone and thinking, but there was a long period when I thought that everything I believed to be real about the great things you and I had done together was actually just a fantasy. That people were just being kind. And I was sort of this inside joke.
DAN: What do you mean? Like when you’d come do audience talkbacks and things, after performances of my first play about you?
PAUL: That’s right. The whole thing seemed like a performance. Like an act. Like I’d started to inhabit some sort of role. And, you know, I was getting things out of it, I got to go to New York and hang around with cool people and all of that … But really it was empty.
DAN: I disagree. I mean, I guess I understand why you’d say this, because you’re not really the theater type —
PAUL: I didn’t fit in. I was saying ridiculously provocative things. Stupid things. I wasn’t trying to be an asshole. I was just saying things.
DAN: This reminds me of when we pitched that TV pilot several years ago. You were so anxious that nobody would even want to have a meeting with us.
PAUL: “Take a meeting” —
DAN: Ha ha ha, yes, “take a meeting.” You were underestimating how interesting it would be for people in TV, or the theater, or the arts in general, to get to spend some time with somebody like you. Because you’re a storyteller, like I am, like they are, and yet your career has involved a very different kind of storytelling. Those meetings lasted a long time. Those TV executives were fascinated by what you had to say.
PAUL: But nobody bought our pitch.
DAN: No. Ha ha ha.
PAUL: The truth is I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but during the pandemic I realized: I have zero talent. I can talk. I can tell these stories. But I literally have no talent.
DAN: That’s crazy. I was just rereading your memoir Where War Lives and was reminded of how well written it is.
PAUL: That’s memoir. If you can’t write fiction, you’re not a writer.
DAN: Fiction isn’t the only way to be a writer. You’ve written journalism for like 25 years —
PAUL: Journalism isn’t writing. Journalism is mostly bullshit.
DAN: Well, see, this has always been a part of our relationship and our collaboration. So, I’m glad we’re doing it here, on the record. Gently arguing, like old times. You’re self-deprecating about what you do, I’m self-deprecating about what I do. Like when I’m reading about what’s happening in Ukraine, and Afghanistan, and other war zones, I can feel like what I do as a playwright-poet-essayist-whatever is basically useless. What’s that Auden quote that “poetry makes nothing happen”? I know that quote’s almost always taken out of context and doesn’t mean what it seems to mean. But I hate what people think it means. I don’t know if poetry makes anything happen in a grand sense, but I know it helps. And I suspect that good journalism helps even more.
PAUL: I could give you many examples to show you that journalism fails miserably. I took a lot of risks to go into villages held by the Taliban, that sort of thing. To show that the United States and its allies were losing. And I got heavy pushback from editors. Things were edited out. We’d have arguments over phrasing. One of the lines of inquiry I kept pushing was the claim that General Musharraf, at the time the head of Pakistan, was America’s strongest ally in the war against terrorism. That was a flat lie. And it was obvious to anyone who looked. You can’t defeat your enemy when they have sanctuary in Pakistan. And yet that lie persisted. And when it finally became obvious to everyone last August that America did lose in Afghanistan, the reasons I was trying to point out for so many years were the very same reasons that were proven at the moment of catastrophe at the end. I was in despair. How many times did I almost get myself kidnapped or killed in order to tell the truth, and then suddenly everybody’s shocked? How did this happen? How did we get here? What the fuck?
DAN: So, the pushback that you’d receive from editors, how much of that was a conscious decision to streamline or sanitize a story, or to bow to political pressure in some way, and how much was a subconscious need for a simpler story?
PAUL: It was a line editor, I remember, on a story about Pakistan. And she said to me, “Listen, you have to understand the public mood here.” And my reaction was, “Do you want me to tell the truth or not?” Which brings me back to the literary world. You can tell truths in ways that people can handle.
DAN: I think you’re romanticizing what I do again. There’s all kinds of theater and books that don’t reach much of an audience because it doesn’t tell the kinds of stories that people want to hear. I don’t mean to bring up our tragicomic TV pitch again. But this was going to be a series about American and European reporters covering the war in Syria. And that’s a war that doesn’t have an easy, simplified narrative for Americans.
PAUL: I honestly thought the TV show was going to be our opportunity to tell the truth in an entertaining way. I was believing that so much. But then the ultimate conclusion from the executives was: “This won’t work because journalists are too low stakes.”
DAN: I don’t know if they said low stakes or unlikable.
PAUL: They said low stakes.
DAN: Which is strange because we were proposing to write about people working on the front lines in a war zone, literally risking their lives. So, my takeaway was that it was really about how the Syria War was, and is, again, confusing for Americans.
PAUL: We shouldn’t too easily dismiss the wisdom of Hollywood moguls. They believe, and rightly so, apparently, that the stakes of superheroes are more significant than journalists who are trying to tell the truth about war.
DAN: That’s a purely escapist example. Those movies have stakes that are astronomical but fantastical and therefore not really real. Realism about war is a hard sell. My first play about you, The Body of an American — it did well, relatively, in terms of productions and awards. But if it wasn’t so “heavy” or graphic, it probably would have been seen by more people. Anytime you write something about war honestly, perhaps the best you can hope for is somebody saying it’s “important.” Important like taking medicine.
PAUL: Our show was going to have full-frontal nudity! And gallows humor. I know it would’ve been popular.
DAN: I’d like to get back to this question of whether or not journalists are likable. I find them likable. But obviously, as the Trump era showed us, lots of Americans don’t like journalists. And I like that conflict. I like ambiguous characters that audiences and readers have ambivalent feelings about. So, the idea that people don’t know how they feel about journalists — that’s promising subject matter to me. Now, it could be that we don’t know how we feel about truth tellers, it could be that we doubt a journalist’s motives and the systemic biases of capitalism …
PAUL: When I first started writing about war, it was a niche profession. Pre-9/11. Most real journalists weren’t interested. It was like freelancers and mostly social dropouts. After 9/11, it became a duty, practically, of every Western journalist to go and hang with the troops and show how we’re defeating the terrorists. Right? So, you had this flood of people, who were never interested in war before, suddenly covering it and being portrayed as heroes. My whole point, and I’ve said this to you so many times I’m sick of hearing myself say it, is that there are no heroes in war. Every human being who encounters it is ruined. And I don’t know how you can find heroism in a ruined human being. Ordinary people if they think about it very long, especially those who are obsessively watching video of what’s happening in Ukraine, will feel the poison bubbling in them. It’s affecting how they see the world, how they see their children, it’s making them angry, hateful, etc. That’s what I want people to realize and to fight against.
DAN: Fight against it how? It sounds like you’re suggesting that people should hide from the news, should avoid or evade reality.
PAUL: No. But I think it’s important to detach. I meditate now, and it’s changed my life.
DAN: Does meditation help you in terms of your PTSD?
PAUL: Yes. I have to embrace the sensation. The memory. Engage with it. Concentrate on it. Study it. Be in the moment with it.
DAN: You don’t run from your memory. You observe it and try to let it go.
PAUL: That’s right. I’m not a saint or anything, but I’m getting better at it. And you start to realize how many pointless thoughts you have in a day. It’s sad. We are literally asleep. We’re oblivious to reality. There’s this sound of a bird singing in a tree. And we’re thinking about how the boss shouted at me this morning. What happened this morning isn’t real. The bird singing in the tree, right now, is real.
DAN: I have mixed feelings about this. Because when I was in the depths of cancer treatment in 2016, the bird in the tree, those moments of presence and joy, however small, were everything to me. And concerns about the boss, which in my line of work would be, I don’t know, an editor rejecting a poem or a producer passing on my play — those things meant nothing. I did not care whatsoever. And as I started to feel healthy again, started to come back to life, started to think maybe I’ll be around for a few months, a few years, who knows maybe a few decades — all of those practical worries came back. I was disappointed in myself. But to some degree I’ve made peace with it because these worries are like the animal side of psychology. These worries mean you’re alive. And surviving trauma doesn’t make you wise. We’re extremely lucky if we’re able to return to mundane worries.
PAUL: Here’s the thing with trauma. Your trauma as a cancer patient and now survivor, my trauma from seeing too many people killed in horrific ways — both of those are real. But I realized that I was defining myself solely by things that had happened in the past. And that is being asleep.
DAN: I hear you.
PAUL: Yes, the trauma happened. But it’s not happening now. What’s happening now is the bird singing in a tree.
DAN: I know you don’t use the word “retirement,” but are you able to have this committed practice of meditation because —
PAUL: Because I’m not doing anything!
DAN: Because you’re not in a war zone now. And haven’t been for a while. And your traumatic memories are receding deeper and deeper into the past.
PAUL: That’s right.
DAN: I’ve written so much about you over the years in terms of a haunting. The most traumatic episode in your life and your career was when you were photographing the desecration of a US Army Ranger in the streets of Mogadishu, and you heard the dead man say to you: “If you do this, I will own you forever.” That’s the photo that won a Pulitzer Prize. But you felt tremendous guilt and feared you’d be punished for it somehow. Is it fair to say that you feel less haunted these days? And if so, why?
PAUL: As you asked that question, I felt my heart speed up so I’m checking my Apple Watch. Which I got for Christmas. My normal resting heart rate is 67 …
DAN: That’s good.
PAUL: And I’m now at 89.
PAUL: So, there you go. I’m aware of a physical reaction to something you brought up which may or may not be real. So, the logical answer is that I have physically reacted to your question of “Do you still feel haunted?” Obviously, I do. But intellectually I’m much better. I’m better with the sense of the impermanence of things. Why be haunted by a trauma when everything ends? I end. The planet eventually ends. God knows the universe may eventually end. Why cling to it? I know it sounds clichéd and I hate myself for it, but it really does work: I truly believe that the only way to liberate yourself from suffering is to be attached to nothing. Including yourself. Including the sense that you, Dan O’Brien, are this central force moving through the world —
DAN: The protagonist in my all-important story —
PAUL: That’s right.
DAN: How long has it been since you were in a war zone? In Syria?
PAUL: I don’t know. I’d have to Google. So long ago it feels like a lifetime.
DAN: And do you miss it? Maybe you’re relieved.
PAUL: Part of me misses it. The stakes of it. Because I don’t really know who I am anymore. I’ve stripped so much away, and I’m not doing anything. As I said. I’m isolated. I cut the cable. I don’t listen to the news. I don’t watch TV. I don’t want to hear anybody anymore. So, I’ve lost the sense of purpose most of us have, which is our job.
DAN: Our identity.
PAUL: Identity’s a better way to put it. And war gave me an identity. It gave me a pretty good one. Because I got good at covering war, and I had an instinct which meant I didn’t get injured or killed. Maybe I had a protective something or other. I don’t know. It’s a mystery to me that so many times I was right on the edge of death and walked away from it. When you get away with it so many times, you have this sense of supreme — “power” isn’t the right word, but an arrogance. So yes, I miss it. But the stronger reaction is I hate that person. I was acting in a role, and I got trapped in something that was giving me self-esteem, and I was making a great living and it was exciting. But it wasn’t me. It was a complete and utter delusion. And delusions are not so bad when nobody gets hurt. But, you know, many times for me to have a successful day as a war reporter, somebody had to die. And that’s the truth. And it’s a horrible thing to confront.
DAN: I completely hear what you’re saying, and I find it complicated and poignant. But at the same time, as someone who isn’t a war reporter, and thinking about Ukraine at the moment, if there weren’t journalists there, on the ground, as it were, helping to synthesize, contextualize, and disseminate the true story, we’d be left with silence, or worse yet rumor and propaganda. So, I’m going to have to respectfully disagree. You can prop me up regarding the kind of work I do, and I’ll do the same for you. Okay?
PAUL: Okay. Sounds fair.
DAN: Well, Paul, I think I have more than enough here —
PAUL: More than enough drivel!
DAN: Why do you say that? No, this will be a fascinating piece. I hope I can condense and edit it in the right way and do it justice. I know in the past I didn’t share my writing about you with you, because you weren’t interested and didn’t want to be disturbed by it. But in this case, I’ll be happy to share it for your edits.
PAUL: You’re brilliant. So, I have no doubt that you’ll make this make some sense. No need to share. Like I said: I’m sick of myself. It’s hard to read such things.
DAN: Okay, well, I have to go pick up my daughter at school. Let’s do this again soon.
PAUL: Let’s do it on a sailboat next time.
DAN: And we won’t record it.
PAUL: It’ll be better on a sailboat. Next year. Or the year after. Let’s go sailing.
DAN: Okay. But I should warn you: I get seasick.
PAUL: We can fix that. Give you some drugs. I’m going to have all of my certification by this fall, touch wood. I’ll be able to charter a boat. And we’ll live like kings. And go sailing.
DAN: Sounds good, Paul. Till next time.
PAUL: Till next time.
Dan O’Brien is an award-winning playwright, poet, librettist, and essayist. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, the actor Jessica St. Clair, and their daughter Isobel.
Paul Watson is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and author of three books, including the 2017 best seller Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition, and the memoir Where War Lives, published in 2007. For over a quarter-century, he was a foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and The Toronto Star.
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