Janine di Giovanni is a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, and the author of “The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches From Syria.”
In 1992, when I joined the Sunday Times of London, one of the first people I met in the office was journalist Marie Colvin, the subject of the movie “A Private War,” which opened Friday. She was killed in Homs, Syria, in 2012.
Colvin, like me, was an American living in London who reported on wars and hot spots. I was younger, but we both were members of a rarefied club: the female war correspondent. Our journey was an arduous one, and back then it meant that having an ordinary life was virtually impossible. We didn’t have many role models of women who had gone before us — except Martha Gellhorn, Ernest Hemingway’s third wife. But she died alone. I did not want to end my life like hers.
For the next three decades, Colvin and I both roamed the world, starting with the Balkan wars, then the African genocides and the civil wars fought by child soldiers; next came the 9/11 wars, Afghanistan and Iraq; and finally the Arab Spring. After Colvin died in Syria, I continued to report until the Assad regime threw me out, then crossed the border of Turkey illegally to report from the opposition side.
“A Private War” brings back many of the issues: the heavy drinking; bleak depressions and broken relationships; the loneliness of being on the road for months on end. The film makes it look glamorous — which, of course, it never was. Living on cans of tuna fish, wearing the same dirty clothes for weeks and not getting a shower were pretty standard. Getting shot at and injured — Colvin lost an eye in Sri Lanka in 2001 — were the reality. “Why are actresses’ shirts always so clean in those films about war reports?” she once asked me. “Mine never are.”
What the film misses, though, is the sexual harassment that came along with the job. When the #MeToo movement broke last year, I remember thinking: Seriously? This is what we dealt with for years. But we never complained, except among ourselves. If we did, we would have been tossed out of the boys’ club that we had entered at our own peril. We just put our heads down and worked.
The soldiers and even the warlords I worked beside were more respectful than some of my colleagues. On Christmas Day 1992, during a terrible bombardment in the besieged city of Sarajevo, I climbed the five flights of stairs in the bombed-out Holiday Inn wearing three layers of clothes and my flak jacket. I used the satellite phone to call my desk to call an editor, now a senior executive for Rupert Murdoch. He asked, clearly bored, how I was.
“Freezing,” I answered. “There hasn’t been heat in the buildings for months, and no food, and …”
He cut me off. “I’m sure you’ll find a nice willy to keep you warm,” he said, using the British slang for penis, and laughing cynically. I was too startled to say anything. Even if I did report him, who would take it seriously?
Driving to work one day in London, I relayed the incident to Colvin. “It’s always easier if you sleep with them,” she said, referring obliquely to the women who caved in.
We were second-wave feminists who believed we could do a man’s work and be treated as equals. The reality was drastically different: We were accustomed to being paid less for doing what they did. Besides that, we faced a crass double standard about our personal lives. Some of my colleagues often had wives at home but girlfriends on the road. We, of course, weren’t supposed to have any of the above and were expected to live like nuns. If we didn’t, we were immediately labeled as promiscuous.
When the London Evening Standard published a blatant untruth about me, alongside a sexy photograph, a company lawyer warned me that a lawsuit would mean laying my private life bare to the public. I didn’t have anything to hide, I thought, but his advice was to go home and get on with my job.
So #MeToo left me confused. Like many old-school feminists, I wondered if we had let it go on too long to complain. And while I applaud the fact that #MeToo will protect the most vulnerable women — those who do not have the resources or the power to pursue their tormentors — I worry that it will distract women from focusing on their goals and pursuing them.
In December 2001, not long after the fall of the Taliban, I spent weeks reporting with the U.S.-backed Afghan troops — weeks of lechery, harassment, comments about my physical attributes. One day, when an armed solider put his hand on my bottom, something snapped — I whirled around and punched him in the face.
It was probably a stupid thing to do, and I was lucky he didn’t shoot me. But he didn’t shoot me, and I walked away. From then on, I was known in the unit as the girl who punched back. It was my small #MeToo moment. But I didn’t have the time to take it further. I went back to my work.