A Journalist for All Wars and Cat Shows
LIVE FROM THE BATTLEFIELD: FROM VIETNAM TO BAGHDAD - 35 YEARS IN THE WORLD'S WAR ZONES By Peter Arnett. Simon & Schuster. 463 pp., $23.
PETER ARNETT says that when he started his journalistic career on New Zealand's Southland Times he covered, among other things, his share of cat shows. Imagine the scene: the blocky, budding Baghdad Pete, future war correspondent extraordinaire, stalking suspiciously among silver tabbies. Perhaps he was wearing a flak jacket and a helmet even back then. He turns on his tape recorder and speaks into the microphone: ``Here we are behind enemy lines. I have only received a few scratches so far....''
The point is that it is hard to think of Peter Arnett doing any kind of work that does not involve phoning in reports from underneath tables in hotels where the frightened staff has all run away. From Baghdad, to Afghanistan, to Cyprus, to Vietnam, Arnett has come almost to define the role of journalistic war hound, as his engaging new memoir ``Live from the Battlefield: From Vietnam to Baghdad - 35 Years in the World's War Zones,'' makes clear.
Every 30 pages he is reduced to showering with bottled mineral water, or swimming a river with a dispatch in his teeth (Laos, 1960), or spending a fearful night helping guard an embattled United States perimeter (Vietnam, 1965). His appears to be a classic case of that kind of wanderlust that is induced by growing up somewhere boring. ``I lived my youth in Bluff, a gale-lashed town at the bottom end of New Zealand, which is at the bottom end of the world,'' his book begins.
His early professional life was filled, apparently, with so many hijinks in exotic locales that at times his book takes on the tone of Evelyn Waugh's satiric novel ``Scoop.'' At one point in Laos in the early 1960s he served as three competing wire reporters in one, filing a story for AP, UPI, and Agence France-Presse. All three sent him cables about how he bested his competition.
But the defining experience of his career, and the heart of the book, was the Vietnam War. As an AP correspondent there he refined his jump-in-a-helicopter-and-just-report-what-you-see style. No honed analyses or trend stories for him. He won a Pulitzer Prize, and with his front-line reports early on found that the war was not going nearly as well as the brass or Washington pictured it. At one point, he braved a hair-raising helicopter ride to sneak into a besieged hamlet named Duc Co. There he found an American major named Norman Schwarzkopf who spoke frankly of the precariousness of his position. ``The truth is we're sitting ducks here,'' Arnett quotes the young Stormin' Norman as saying.
By comparison, Arnett's CNN reporting of US attacks on Baghdad, Iraq, was a simple assignment. To be sure, he was set up in an enemy capital. But he had only a war of a few weeks' duration to cover. The constraint of his position precluded him from doing much actual reporting. One thing Arnett apparently is not is reflective. Describing Saddam Hussein as someone who reminded him of ``old Hollywood images of Latin lovers'' seems, somehow, naive for such a worldly man. There is little discussion of the primary charge made against Arnett's Baghdad reports: that he was facilitating a propaganda effort.
Arnett's position was that there was lots of reporting going on about the Gulf war that could balance his broadcasts. He just repeated what he saw. ``I felt my reporting outweighed their propaganda gain,'' he writes.
He glides over the question of how CNN got such access in Iraq in the first place. And besides, was that really a baby-formula plant that the US bombed, or not? Arnett has done no digging since the war to establish the truth.
We do find out, however, that by the end of Desert Storm he was so world-famous that Turkish women were naming daughters after him. Not even Evelyn Waugh could have dreamed up that sort of detail.