Refugees clinging to military jets, mothers tossing babies over barbed-wire fences—the Biden administration wanted to spare the world images of another Saigon, but that mission also failed. So as the Americans messily extricate themselves from a disastrous situation in Afghanistan, it’s a gut-wrenching time to turn on the television.

The only real bright spot on the screen is Clarissa Ward, CNN’s chief international correspondent, who had been reporting live from the streets of Kabul at all hours of the day and night before finally leaving the country early this morning.

Equal parts erudite historian, soothing therapist, and wry tour guide, Ward is bringing Americans to the front lines without even thinking about breaking a sweat—even as she wears a black chador and veil to interview the Taliban in 90-degree weather.

The 41-year-old Ward joined CNN in 2015, and three years later she succeeded Christiane Amanpour as its chief international correspondent. Based in London, she lives in Notting Hill with her husband, Philipp von Bernstorff, who is both a businessman and a German count. According to coverage of their wedding published in Town & Country, the two met at a dinner party in 2007 and married nine years later in a ceremony at Chelsea Old Town Hall. (She wore a lavender dress by Peter Pilotto that was purchased off the rack at Harvey Nichols.) The couple has two young sons—Ezra, aged three and a half, and Caspar, who celebrated his first birthday in June.

“He told me to cover my face,” Ward confides to the camera, nonplussed, after a verbal tiff with a belligerent fighter. “But he doesn’t want to comment on that truncheon he’s carrying.”

This is Ward’s moment, and nothing in her posh background suggests she was groomed for this kind of hard-knocks reporting. She had a privileged upbringing between New York City and London. Her American mother, Donna Ward, is an interior designer in Palm Beach; her British father, Rodney Ward, is a former investment banker who rowed for Cambridge and attended Yale Law School.

As a young girl, Ward lived in a string of Upper East Side town houses, which her mother renovated and flipped for a profit. By the age of eight, when the family moved to London, she had cycled through 11 different nannies. (One was fired because she began dating Ward’s tennis instructor and then crashed her mother’s BMW.)

“He told me to cover my face,” Ward confides to the camera, nonplussed, after a verbal tiff with a belligerent fighter. “But he doesn’t want to comment on that truncheon he’s carrying.”

Ward spent two years at Godstowe, an all-girls prep school, before transferring to Wycombe Abbey, one of the U.K.’s top public schools, located in Buckinghamshire.

“At school, either you were cool or you weren’t. And she fell in the former category,” says a former classmate who is also a fellow journalist. “From afar, I remember her as one of those outrageously too-cool-for-school girls, which many of us were. At least, that’s what we thought.”

The classmate describes the Wycombe ethos as “cutthroat academics in an environment where many pretended not to study. If you were clever, you could cut it, and things were O.K. If you weren’t clever enough, I am sure you were made to feel it.”

While studying comparative literature at Yale, Ward was “immersed in the more superficial side of self-discovery,” she wrote in her 2020 memoir, On All Fronts: The Education of a Journalist. She read Russian novels, smoked marijuana, dyed her hair pink, acted in student films, and even graced the school’s infamous “naked parties.”

This is Ward’s moment, and nothing in her posh background suggests she was groomed for this kind of hard-knocks reporting.

But the September 11 attacks, which occurred during the first week of Ward’s senior year, proved sobering, and ultimately became the catalyst for her career. The next summer, she interned at CNN’s Moscow bureau, and after graduation she got her start as an overnight-desk assistant at Fox News in New York. She soon moved to Beirut, where she covered the execution of Saddam Hussein, and was sent to Iraq, where she embedded with the U.S. military. Then it was off to Moscow as a correspondent for ABC News. (Ward speaks fluent French and Italian as well as conversational Russian, Arabic, and Spanish, and basic Mandarin.) In 2011, she went to CBS News, where, among other risks, she endured bombing and sniper fire to report on Aleppo for 60 Minutes.

It’s all this, but mostly her mastery of her métier, that has impressed civilians and seasoned journalists alike. “Clarissa is the gold standard,” says Martha Raddatz, the long-serving chief global-affairs correspondent for ABC News. “She goes to the heart of the story every single time. She illuminates and questions. And shows us why we should care. I am so proud to call her a friend.”

As of Friday night in Kabul, Ward was sitting in an airplane on the tarmac at Khwaja Rawash Airport. “The planes are not flying as much as they’re supposed to be,” she told Air Mail in a voice memo she sent. “It’s possible to get out, but it’s very, very hard. The hardest part is getting into the airport compound itself. We were brushing against people, trying to squeeze through a gate with people pulling us through. It was very, very intense.”

Where is the Biden administration in all of this? “The American government is trying to act in a meaningful way to expedite the process, but I think there was a complete lack of planning and preparation for this kind of an eventuality,” says Ward. “And you’re seeing that now in this chaos that’s ensuing. What should have been done gradually over a period of six months to a year is happening in a matter of days. As a result, it’s not happening. People are camped out for two days in the scorching sun with screaming, dehydrated babies and no sign of a plane in sight. It’s a really desperate, chaotic situation in here.”

As Ward prepared to leave, she reflects on what makes the American extrication from Afghanistan especially striking. “Every conflict you cover has a unique misery and suffering and horror, and all civilian pain is horrendous,” she says. “But this is desperation the likes of which I haven’t seen in quite some time. I interviewed a soldier today who said that women were throwing their babies over the razor wire to try to get their children safely into the airport. That, to me … it doesn’t get more desperate than that.”

Ashley Baker is the Style Editor for AIR MAIL and a co-host of the Morning Meeting podcast