The game that brought Michael Ware back to life

· International
Stu Walmsley.
by Stu Walmsley

War correspondent Michael Ware remembers the exact point he stopped caring about death.

It was April 2007, and the former Queensland Reds hooker had spent the last four years covering the Iraq war for CNN and TIME Magazine. He was embedded with U.S. troops in a remote village near the Iranian border when a teenager, carrying a weapon for protection, approached a house where he and the soldiers were staying.

“One of them put a bullet right in the back of his head. Unfortunately it didn’t kill him,” Ware told Fairfax in 2016. “We all spent the next 20 minutes listening to his tortured breath as he died.”

Of all the horror Ware witnessed during his ‘lost decade at war’ he recalls this as a watershed moment because of what he sees as his complicity. He admits, at the time, his primary concern, was filming the boy’s protracted death rather than intervening to save his life.

Only five months later, Ware was in Marseille covering the 2007 Rugby World Cup. In clips of his live crosses for CNN, he is clearly revelling in the atmosphere, and the uninitiated American audience laps up the florid descriptions from this Aussie larrikin with a nose about as straight as a dog’s hind leg.

Somewhere between Baghdad and France, the hard-bitten war correspondent had morphed into jovial sports reporter, a transition Ware recalls was far from easy.

“It totally wrinkled my mind. That kind of crunching gear change from Baghdad to Marseille, to cover rugby……… there had to be an adjustment,” Ware says, from his current base in Los Angeles, where he runs his own production company Penance Films.

“But it was also a blessing, because it helped me rediscover a love I have for stories. Yes, it’s not high stakes political theatre, it’s not life and death in the balance, but rugby reminded me of the joy of telling the story of something spectacular and beautiful and wonderful.

“It really invigorated me, it bought me another six months.” 

Ware (right) in the back of a sheep truck just before the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Photo: SuppliedIn fact, Ware lasted another two years reporting from Iraq before returning home to ‘write a book’ but, back in Brisbane, he realised just how badly war had broken him.

“….. he was now a profoundly traumatized stranger in a what had become a strange land,” wrote former TIME colleague Phil Zabriskie in 2016.

“He could barely function away from war. He couldn’t sleep. He self-medicated. He saw roadside bombs when he drove and the faces of the dead when he closed his eyes.”

In Australia, he was also forced to confront the cost of war on those closest to him. Ware’s son Jack barely saw his father for the first eight years of his life and severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was a major factor in the breakdown of his first marriage.

He was suicidal, could barely leave the house, but it was another family which he ultimately credits with salvation - his rugby family.

“Rugby was the only thing that could reach me from the darkness after the war,” he says.

A video still from Ware’s coverage of the 2007 Rugby World Cup.Wind the clock back to 1990 and a 20-year-old Ware, after a standout match at hooker for GPS against University at St Lucia, was plucked from nowhere by then Reds coach John (Knuckles) Connolly.

“There I am in the sheds, exhausted, and this bloke comes over and says; ‘I’ll expect you at training on Monday night, alright?’. I said; ‘No worries’, and he walked away,” Ware recalls.

“My own club coach then came up and said; ‘Hey Warey, you don’t have a clue who that was, do ya? I said; ‘Nah’. He said; ’that was Knuckles (Connolly), the Reds coach, you just got selected.”

Six days later, on the cusp of a debut in Auckland, he was hit by a car in Indooroopilly and suffered severe head, back and shoulder injures. He didn’t play again for two years and watched his Queensland U21 teammates John Eales and Tim Horan go on to win the 1991 World Cup while working as a bouncer at an inner-city Brisbane club. 

Ware (back row, second from left) with the Queensland under 19 colts in 1987. Photo: SuppliedWare eventually made his senior debut for Queensland on the 1994 tour of Argentina, called up to replace injured duo Michael Foley and Brendan Cannon, but his mother’s habit of bragging about her son’s skill set to the regulars at her sandwich bar was then responsible for a fateful switch in profession.

One customer, who happened to be the chief of staff at Brisbane's Courier-Mail, offered Ware a trial with the paper in 1995 and his journey to the Middle East had begun.

By 2000, Ware was working on his first assignments for TIME in East Timor and Afghanistan. Over the next decade as a war correspondent he became a household name in the U.S. and won the respect of subjects and colleagues alike with his dogged pursuit of the truth, mainly in the bedlam of post-Saddam Iraq.

Inspired by the groundbreaking work of Australian conflict cameraman Neil Davis, one of the few to report from behind enemy lines in the Vietnam War, Ware managed to make contact with the insurgency in Iraq and, in particular, Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi.

The man now seen by many as the true founder of Islamic State was then a little-known Jordanian running ‘al-Qaeda in Iraq’. Ware began to shun the easier and safer embeds with U.S. troops and, armed with a $300 handycam, started trying to find the source of the then unusual terror attacks which would tragically become the norm in occupied Iraq.

Having been almost beheaded by Zarqawi’s insurgents while investigating reports his group had taken control of the Haifa Street area of Baghdad in 2004, Ware’s relationship developed to the point where he became the Jordanian’s conduit to the Western media.

“That was put to me, very publicly here in America, on a very prominent conservative radio show when it was said to me that, given what you’ve done in Iraq, if this were World War Two would you have accepted an embed to go in with the Nazis? And I said; ‘yes’,” Ware admits.

“Why? Because you can learn so much, just from looking and watching and listening, so for me the compulsion to make contact with the other side was because our Western war machine in Iraq simply didn’t know who it was fighting.”

Ware’s tapes from this period, which gradually filled a Tupperware container under his mother’s bed in Brisbane, comprise his powerful 2015 documentary ‘Only the Dead See the End of War’ - a film which lays bare the horror of that period in Iraq and also the incredible risks he was taking in the name of journalism.

“When you listen to the recordings which led to Tim Bowden’s book (One Crowded Hour), you’ll hear Neil Davis talk about the influence that Aussie Rules had on him on the front line. I thought it was nonsense, I thought it was just hyperbole, but I’m telling you rugby helped me on the front line, just as football helped Neil Davis,” Ware says.

“There’a a sense of camaraderie, a sense of bond, and everything that happens in the butchery of war is about teamwork and sacrificing yourself for the others, and I learned that first in rugby.

“Rugby did not set me on a path to war but, once I set upon it, rugby helped see me through.”

Ware speaks in 2015 after the screening of his film in West Hollywood. Photo: Getty ImagesDual World Cup winner John Eales, who went to primary school with Ware at St. Williams in north-west Brisbane, admits he wasn’t surprised to see his junior Reds teammate excel in his profession.

“What I do remember of him, and this came through in his life after rugby, was that he was an incredibly brave player and he had more regard for the progress of the team than he had for himself,” Eales says.

“He was also a very intelligent guy - the sort of guy who would challenge what you were doing and why you were doing it - but he would do it from a very intellectual perspective.”

Just as those lessons learned with GPS at Yoku Road were crucial in combat, the same community eventually brought Ware back to sanity upon his return to Brisbane.

“As is often the case with so many of our veterans from our modern wars, the homecoming from war can be almost as dangerous as the war itself,” Ware says.

“When I came home from, not from one or two or three tours, but from 10 years constantly at war it took me a long time to find traction back where I came from.

“Ultimately, the way I did that, was through rugby. Rugby got me out of the house; to go and watch a Reds game - I resented the invitations but eventually accepted one and loved it - to go and watch my son play juniors, and then sort of want to coach, and then run water, and then go and get a coaching certificate, and another…..

“Step by step that helped me land and, before I knew it, I was back."

Ware pursues the Easts half back in a an early 90s A Grade fixture. Photo: SuppliedThe code also had a key role in mending Ware’s relationship with his son Jack who, just like his old man, ended up packing down in the middle of many a front row for GPS.

“After eight years where his dad was eternally at war, my son and I had a freakish connection despite all those years apart. One part of that was rugby, it helped bring us to life,” Ware says.

“When I left at one point he was playing in the back row and, despite all my insistence, when I came home a few years later he was playing hooker, just like Dad.”

“GPS was the family which helped usher me back from the horror and Jack was a part of that; he brought me back in there.”

Ware (top right) in a Reds program from the 1994 season. Photo: SuppliedWare also coached back at his old school, Brisbane Grammar, and helped Steve Meehan with Queensland Country’s 2014 National Rugby Championship campaign, mainly as a ‘motivational wanker’.

Part of that involvement was to re-familiarise himself with a code he admits bore little resemblance to the game he left in the 90s, but don’t be too surprised if you see that crooked conk on your television from Japan next year reporting on what would be a fourth World Cup.

“Rugby is just a natural story; heroes and villains, and the tales of underdogs, overcoming incredible odds and champions being forged and dynasties made - rugby just speaks volumes about who we are as people, so I love reporting rugby,” Ware says.

But his immediate focus is rising early enough on Saturday morning in LA to see the Wallabies take on Ireland in today’s first Test at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium.

“When I watch the Wallabies play Ireland this weekend, the greatest frustration I know I’m going to have is that I had tickets at Suncorp eight rows from the front on the half-way line, and I’m not going to be able to use them,” Ware laments.

“But I will scream at the screen like anyone else, I’ll throw things at it, I’ll beg it to do better, I’ll hug it when we score because, mate, the Wallabies still mean everything to me.”