by Kevin Taylor & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & remember reading an anecdote told by or about the great documentary photographer W. Eugene Smith. It was still in the early years of World War II and the photographer had gone to have beers at the apartment of a darkroom technician who worked for Life magazine. As the night went on, the host became increasingly weird about not letting Smith use the restroom. Finally, Smith shouldered past, flipped on the light... and found the walls entirely covered with photos of dead Marines on the beaches of the South Pacific. The sort of photos not published in Life or elsewhere.
It was war porn.
David Axe, a journalist who last weekend returned to Iraq for the seventh time, opens his graphic novel War-Fix (based on his own experiences, with art by Steven Olestra) with just such wide-eyed peeping at war: It's 1991, and we see a young David sitting transfixed in front of a television as cruise missiles ride a plume of fire into Iraq during the opening salvoes of the first Gulf War.
"It's bedtime, David. You can watch the war tomorrow," his mother says.
Turn the page and it's March 2003. An older David is again bathed in the light from a television. "Turn off the stupid war and come to bed," says his sleepy girlfriend.
It's a brilliant opening that reveals two key themes in War-Fix: Some of us see war as something that can just be turned off, as if it were a sideshow or optional to our lives. But some of us are seduced by the allure of war -- the missiles and the flame and tracer rounds and tanks and guns... and especially the death.
"The first time I saw somebody blow up, it was so unlike anything I'd ever seen before that it wasn't horrifying or scary," Axe says. He was attentive, stunned and fascinated, but not revolted.
"I don't see people break apart when I walk around in Columbia, South Carolina," he says. "But they do in Iraq when they have a 155-mm artillery round go off" as part of an IED.
Axe, 29, was covering county government for the Free Times in Columbia. He'd graduated from Furman University with a degree in medieval history, "and that's how I ended up a writer. What the hell do you do with a degree in medieval history?"
Covering county government for a newspaper can be just as dusty: land use, traffic studies and wastewater treatment.
"It was awful. We had a Guard unit deploy to Iraq late in 2004 and I saw it as an opportunity to get out of a boring lifestyle," Axe says. "I begged and begged and begged until I got it."
But Free Times agreed only if Axe agreed to be fired. The paper needed to fill the county government beat and couldn't wait a month for his return. Axe took the deal, wrote his stories for the Free Times and then struck out on his own, covering the war for anyone who would pay.
His stories have appeared in places as national as CNN, as local as The Inlander, as left-leaning as The Village Voice, as right-wing as Washington Times.
"It was a great embed," he says. "I was really itching for combat and war stories and showing scars in bars and getting laid... and I got what I was looking for. I got a taste, got a fix."
He also found a career as itinerant war correspondent and went back to Iraq six more times, writing about war and the realities of soldiering with energy and skill.
He also became just as strung-out on adrenaline as any soldier, had relationships fall apart, began to wonder at his fascination with suffering and death and his own ability to retreat to the safe haven of America.
"How does it make you feel as a moral human being? Like shit, sometimes," he says.
Deep into the book, the two threads (of war as distant distraction, and war as deadly and as fascinating as a cobra five inches from your face) twine about each other. David Pratt, a veteran BBC correspondent who has covered 20 wars in 20 years, is talking to Axe, and he casually states, "Janitor, cabbie, salesman... those are jobs. This is... a condition."
At another point in War-Fix, a soldier friend tells Axe, "Just never forget that someday ... this is going to kill you."
In an e-mail last week, Axe wrote, "My plans are unchanged so far ... but I'm getting a little more nervous. After this trip, I'll take a look around and see what to do next."