An inflated importance, John McBeth

Live from the Battlefield
Peter Arnett
Hodder & Stoughton, $49.95

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, Australia and Fleet Street were the beacons for every New Zealand journalist without a house full of kids or one of those painfully faithful Labrador dogs to hold him back. I do remember experiencing a pang of regret halfway across the Tasman when the stewardess brought me a sweetly‑worded telegram from the girlfriend I had promised to write to. But it soon passed and I gave up that particular correspondentship after a couple of postcards, convinced even then that it would be a long time before I went home.

I had my sights firmly on Fleet Street. In fact so determined was I not to get stuck in Australia that I had allowed myself only three days in Sydney before taking passage aboard a cargo ship bound for Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and Singapore. Two months later I arrived in Bangkok. I think I was seduced the moment I stepped off the train at Hualamphong after hitching up the Malay Peninsula. I had intended to stay for a couple of weeks. I stayed for 16 years. And 24 years later Asia remains my home.

No wonder the opening chapters of New Zealand‑born journalist Peter Arnett’s book, Live from the Battlefield, seem pretty familiar. Although we began our careers 11 years apart, both of us joined country papers fresh out of high school in the days when jobs were something school‑leavers felt they were entitled to. Arnett went to work on the Southland Times, later moving to Wellington’s trade union weekly The Standard. I had my grounding on the earthy old Taranaki Herald and then headed north to the Auckland Star.

Both of us worked under demanding taskmasters. Arnett’s was Albie Keast. “How could I tell such a man that his ornery ways had shaped me into a functioning professional journalist,” he says, recalling a visit to the ageing editor years later. My particular nemeses were the Herald’s June Litman and the Star’s Alec Wood. Both of them rode me into the ground, Wood often deriding me in front of the entire newsroom. One moulded me, the other motivated me. No one could have had better teachers.

Although Arnett tried his hand in Australia, he didn’t stay for long. Arriving in Thailand in 1958, he went to work on the Bangkok World, an afternoon newspaper edited by Darrel Berrigan ‑ an American who was later to be murdered on a Bangkok street under rather sordid circumstances. Twelve years later, in June 1970, I also decided to linger, signing on as a copy editor on the Bangkok Post, the English‑language daily then owned by Thomson Newspapers.

By that time Arnett had already won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting of the Vietnam War and was heading back to the world. He was to return on several occasions over the next five years to cover the waning days of the old Saigon regime. I remember reading his copy spewing out of the printer, marvelling at its descriptive clarity. I wasn’t aware he was a New Zealander at that point so I can’t be accused of bias. From a distance at least, it was damned fine work and I don’t think the years have diminished that view.

It would be a lie to suggest that an active libido did not play at least a part in my decision to stay in Asia. In stark contrast to today’s crop of earnest young ivy‑leaguers, we lived in an AIDS‑free environment where having a good time was all part of the job ‑ and where, incidentally, a bar was often the best place to meet and win the trust of the cloak‑and‑dagger boys who otherwise would never give you the time of day. It is no exaggeration that some of the best news tips I ever got I had to strain to hear over a crashing juke box.

Arnett alludes to the salad days as well, describing Bangkok as his “finishing school for sensual experience”. As he so aptly puts it: “The rich colours and smells and sounds were an intoxicant that liberated the libido; everyone in Bangkok seemed to be living on a hot tin roof.” Those were, after all, the days described in Women of Bangkok, Jack Reynolds’ memorable memoir of his fumbling romance with a young lady he called the “White Leopard”. I met the White Leopard in the 1970s. Sadly, her fabled beauty had long since deserted her. But, hell, I still bought her a drink.

Then there were the stories. Arnett seems to have done mostly puff pieces for the World. I had better luck because more was happening. Soon after joining the Post, I was stumbling home from a bar in the pre‑dawn darkness when I came across a blazing hotel in the small backstreet. I was the only reporter there and for the next two hours I watched guests jumping to their deaths from the top floors.

The official toll was 26, mostly foreigners. But the real count was probably closer to 50 if police had included the bargirls who had been spirited into many of the rooms. It was the biggest story I had ever covered, yet when I got back to the Post the Thai news editor thought I was joking. Gungho from New Zealand, I almost had apoplexy.

Back in those early days, Bangkok was a fascinating place, criss‑crossed by klongs (canals), full of glittering temples and other cultural sights ‑ and free of the milling tourists and the horrendous traffic that now gives the great city such a bad name. Mostly I got around dangling from the backstep of an over‑crowded bus. There was, of course, the rest of Thailand to explore, and also reporting trips across the country’s borders into Burma’s rebel‑held northwest and into neighbouring Laos and Cambodia where travelling the roads was often a risky proposition.

Arnett went to a then‑peaceful Laos in 1960 to work for a small Vientiane newspaper. From his description, it had changed little from the place I first visited in 1971. The Constellation Hotel and owner Maurice Cavelliere were still there. The French bread was delicious, and marijuana remained on open sale at the morning market. But there were also differences. One was the “vertical runway”, a replica of the Arc de Triomphe so‑named because the money to build it had come from United States aid funds earmarked for the extension of Wattay Airport. The other was the busy airport itself, with CIA‑backed Air America aircraft flying around‑the‑clock missions onto remote hilltop strips in support of a so‑called “secret war” that was no longer secret.

Arnett had seen the start of all that. Months after he got to Laos, paratroop captain Kong Le launched the coup that would ultimately set the tiny mountain kingdom on the path to civil war ‑ one of the sideshows of the wider path to civil war ‑ one of the sideshows of the wider Indochina conflict. Rebel soldiers dosed off the border, but in the best traditions of barefoot reporting Arnett twice swam the Mekong River to file his dispatches for Associated Press, for whom he was then stringing. More than 16 years later, Australian photographer John Everingham would perform the same feat using scuba gear ‑ this time to bring out his girlfriend from under the noses of the communist Pathet Lao.

Arnett’s derring‑do won him a full‑time position as AP correspondent in Jakarta. Like many a journalist who has followed him, he was only in Indonesia for 13 months before a string of critical stories got him thrown out. He thought he would be posted to Bangkok, but AP had something different in mind. In June 1962, Arnett began his first assignment in Vietnam. In August, wearing an Australian bush hat and a pair of new boots, he was in the Mekong Delta covering his first combat operation. He soon found he could function without fear, that he was willing to take any kind of risk for a good story.

Three years and a hundred battles later, Arnett became the first New Zealander to win the Pulitzer for overseas reporting. But even then, he and other reporters were drawing the ire of United States military authorities for their negative coverage of an increasingly unpopular conflict. For the first time in the history of warfare, Arnett notes, news reports were going directly from the infantry squad to the American public ‑ sometimes before the area commander even knew what was going on. Then there was the attitude of the soldiers themselves. “Vietnam was not like other wars,” he says. ‘For many soldiers survival, not victory, was the goal.”

Arnett seems to have led a charmed life, while dozens of his colleagues were being killed or wounded around him. British cameraman Tim Page, loved the war ‑ just like Arnett. Taking the glamour out of war, he once said, was like taking the glamour out of sex. In Dispatches, his one‑of‑a-kind book about Page and the other adrenalin junkies, Michael Herr says: “Vietnam was what we had instead of happy childhoods.” Tim was wounded four times and kept going back. Then, during a casvac dust‑off northwest of Saigon, the GI in front of him triggered a massive booby-trap, sending a piece of shrapnel deep into Tim’s brain. He survived, but it took years for him to recover and he’s never been to another war.

The 1968 Tet offensive, enveloping 36 provincial capitals and 64 district centres, represented a major psychological turning point of the struggle for Vietnam ‑ even if it did destroy the Vietcong as an effective force. It also got Arnett into hot water for one of the more memorable quotes of the war. Flying to Ben Tre in the Mekong Delta, he found the city had been shattered by United States airstrikes, called in to dislodge occupying guerillas. An unidentified American major told him: “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” It was, says Arnett, a comment on the essential dilemma of the Tet offensive. Predictably, it also drew allegations that he had made it up.

Clearly, the most searing image of the time was Vietnamese police chief Brig‑Gen Nguyen Ngoc Loan’s execution of a Vietcong suspect at a Saigon intersection. Arnett provides only his unreserved condemnation. The late Australian combat cameraman Neil Davis is still the only newsman I have come across to offer at least an explanation for Loan’s action: hours beforehand, the Vietcong had overrun the main police compound in Saigon, killing Loan’s best friend, a police colonel and his wife and cutting the throats of their six children. When Loan heard the suspect had been seized near the compound, his reaction was instantaneous.

By 1970, Arnett was ready to leave Vietnam. He writes that he was frustrated and angry that the war seemed impervious to solution and that the reporting and terrible sacrifices seemed to do so little to end it. Such comments seem almost ironic, given the way many senior American officers and other conservatives ended up blaming the Press for all that went wrong in Vietnam. It was never a really good argument, but after all officialdom anywhere has a penchant for shooting the messenger.

I have often wondered what would have happened if the French had not come back to reclaim their colony after World War II. What if the Americans had never intervened? I still feel Ho Chi Minh’s nationalist credentials far outweighed his ideological beliefs, but would Vietnam have still taken an expansionist course, as their history might suggest?

Arnett does not dwell on such things. He comes across as a reporter, pure and simple, not a correspondent who feels compelled to look beyond the headlines. Arnett candidly admits he did not have a “world’s view of the war”, and says he stuck to his rule to report only what he could see. That’s all very well and perhaps he doesn’t mean it quite so literally, but a lot of news would never have seen the light of day if that sort of self‑imposed restriction was followed to the letter.

How would Arnett have covered the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia or the Chinese strike into northern Vietnam in the late 1970s? Those were two stories that, initially at least, required trusted sources with area expertise and access to overhead reconnaissance or field radio intercepts. For years, the only way to assess what was going on inside Cambodia was to interview the trickle of refugees who managed the dangerous escape into Thailand.

I have never been able to understand why someone who has cut his teeth in print can turn to the shallowness of television. I know it’s a purist’s view, but I remember being genuinely shocked when Arnett made the move to the then‑fledgling Cable News Network (Motto: If it Bleeds, It Leads) in 1980. Obviously, the choices one makes are personal. And perhaps they are purely financial. As one married‑with‑children colleague wryly explained to me recently: “I joined the world of audiovisual news and factoid because there’s much more money in it ‑ and because I’m shameless about working in a profession without shame.”

To give Ted Turner his due, CNN does seem to go out of its way to hire some of the older practitioners in a profession where it’s almost a crime to be middle‑aged. Take the lovable Richard Blystone, AP’s man in Bangkok when I was there in the early 1970s. Or Bruce Morton, an old CBS hand and one of a handful of television correspondents I have some admiration for. Both bring to their work something that is entirely missing from the reports of their blow‑wave counterparts. It’s called experience and plain old common sense – and it shows.

Arnett says that after “labouring” in print for 25 years (a word I’d never use), he was startled by the sheer impact of television. That was when CNN was then still very much a shopfront creation derisively known as “Chicken Noodle News”. In the years since, it has had the last laugh. Its impact has grown to global proportions and in doing so it has helped produce a generation of kids who don’t read newspapers. Arnett himself underlined just how CNN has revolutionised the way people get their news with his exclusive and controversial reporting out of Baghdad during Operation Desert Storm ‑ the broadcasts that made him a household name.

Leaving aside the inherent risks of both assignments, I still feel any one of Arnett’s accomplishments in Vietnam were superior in a journalistic sense to what he did in Iraq. One involved seat‑of‑the‑pants reporting and a measure of creativity. The other was essentially a triumph of privileged access and the coming‑of‑age of satellite technology.

Still, the criticism Arnett received for reporting behind “enemy” lines was mindless. After the way his New Zealand background had been used against him in Vietnam, it was probably just as well he had taken out American citizenship in the intervening years. Also holding him in good stead, at least in this case, was his old rule to report only what he could see. The sniping from those within the business was simply sour grapes. Political critics displayed an attitude I thought had died with the Cold War.

Official Washington was only too pleased to get a ground-level view of the bombing and, let’s face it, the spectacle of a cruise missile doing a right turn at the al‑Rashid Hotel and then flashing by on its way to a programmed target was one of the more unique shots of the war. It was only when things started to go wrong, when bombs destroyed what appeared to be a milk powder factory and later an underground bunker full of people, that the criticism began in earnest.

Live from the Battlefield should logically end when Arnett quits Iraq at the end of his two‑month stint, surprised to find even a turbaned Palestinian driver pumping his hand in recognition at the Jordanian border. Inexplicably, however, he then recounts a subsequent trip he made to Afghanistan to explore the links between that country’s civil war and the 1993 bombing of New York’s World Trade Centre. The chapter doesn’t belong, even if the preface does make a brave attempt at marrying the two into convenient bookends.

These days, Arnett makes it clear his main preoccupation hasn’t changed one iota: get there and get it first. At 60 years of age, he is still chasing fire engines in an age where instant communications seems to make that almost meaningless. Not only does CNN rely on Reuters and WTN for dramatic events in some of the more remote corners of the world, but the circumstances that led up to Desert Storm may never be repeated in Arnett’s lifetime. And in a crowd he is really no different ‑ and certainly no better ‑ than anyone else. He has only one string to his bow and unless he can play on it, he seems to lose interest and motivation. Surely journalism is more than that.

The single‑minded pursuit of the story of the moment may have satisfied me earlier in my career, but it certainly wouldn’t now. There’s nothing quite like building a good story from ground zero, doing the legwork, drawing on sources you have developed over the years ‑ and learning all the time from the experience. In a day of instant news, I believe the future of print lies more and more in analysis and interpretation; television may provide different viewpoints, but at the end of the day it never seems capable of drawing the threads together.

Critics of Arnett ‑ and those from Vietnam are legion ‑ accuse him of being self‑serving and ego‑driven. “That,” asserts one Vietnam veteran‑cum‑diplomat, “was the reason for him going after a story. It had nothing to do with the story itself.” Arnett does talk grandly about assembling “building blocks of facts” and says the more information that is available, the better the chance of creating what he calls “a true world order”. Oh, baloney! It’s a disease among television people. They always like to see a grander mission for themselves.

In worse‑case scenarios it even leads some correspondents with an inflated view of their own importance into believing they are also part of the story. In Baghdad, that may have been partly true for Arnett. But it would be a mistake if he thought that earned him a role in world affairs. It doesn’t. In fact, such an attitude is about as abhorrent as the awful pack journalism that characterises today’s news gathering and often reduces the raw material we deal with to little more than a cheap supermarket toilet roll.

John McBeth is the Far Eastern Economic Review‘s correspondent in Jakarta.

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Posted in Media, Non-fiction, Review and War
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