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One insane celebrity deserves another. The writer of the piece this week on Charlie Sheen is Michael Ware, the blaspheming, crooked-nosed Australian war correspondent whose unnerving reporting from Iraq for CNN was gotten by living on the edge of death for 10 years. “You’ve put me in a f—king craphouse hotel that even in BAGHDAD would have been considered a S—THOLE,” he shouted down the phone at me in the course of a fee discussion that better resembled a hostage negotiation.
What Michael Ware has done in the line of fire makes Apocalypse Now seem like a Boy Scout training video. In 2004 he was held at gunpoint by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s murderous thugs who intended to execute him on video until his Baath Party guards negotiated his release. In 2008 he filmed a shooting of a young Iraqi man by U.S. troops. The bullet did not immediately kill him. “We all spent the next 20 minutes listening to his tortured breath as he died,” Ware told an Australian newspaper. A friend, journalist John Martinkus, says Ware became “obsessed” with the footage, watching it “over and over again,” haunted by the stark moral choice between helping the dying man and performing as a journalist. (The footage was deemed too graphic to air.) Severe (and understandable) posttraumatic stress triggered a leave of absence from CNN, and eventually his resignation.
In the course of editing The Daily Beast over the past few years, I made repeated efforts to get the gifted Ware, self-exiled since 2010 in Australia and dealing with his drug problem, back to writing. His tortured replies spoke of not being ready. It was the death of the great photojournalist Tim Hetherington, who was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade fired by pro-Gaddafi forces in Libya in 2011, that finally—after a series of late-night emails—enabled me to pull a great piece out of him for our newly acquired Newsweek. It was a powerful and moving homage to Hetherington’s courage, and to what it takes to be a war reporter. Subsequent Ware filings were just as hard to procure—but just as rewarding. His most recent Newsweek article, “The Things War Makes You See,” for Memorial Day, prompted moving reader response. One letter we published read, “My oldest brother … received a severe spinal injury as the result of a roadside bomb. The blow to his soul was immense. Michael Ware’s article made me understand why.”
Assigning Ware to write about Charlie Sheen, the snorting, tweeting, porn-addled Hollywood poster boy for toxic self-indulgence promised a piece that would be an adventure in unlikely connection. Our two wild men bonded and disappeared for a week of nerve-racking God-knows-what. Ware’s portrait of Sheen can be disconcerting: “Charlie’s reservoirs of self-loathing,” he writes, “are deep and black and still, welling in the subterranean caverns of his core, but then are tapped to fuel the internal-combustion engine that is his angst and his guilt.”
Sheen still reels in the aftermath of what Apocalypse Now was for him and his family. His father, Martin Sheen, drinking and working grueling hours as he helped director Francis Ford Coppola re-create the worst parts of the Vietnam War, suffered a heart attack. Little Charlie was brought in to help coax his father back to health. It is that boy, now a man, who brings his father’s helmet from the film to our photo shoot. For all his obnoxious wildness, Sheen, Ware tells us, is a man of “incandescent warmth” and “boundless generosity.” But he’s a shockingly fragile man too, “brutally self-critical.” This “renders him an avid people-pleaser, at times frighteningly quick to forfeit preferences and desires of his own.” Read about it on page 40. Ware and Sheen. Two men at war. With themselves and the world.