Sunday, September 20, 2009

Live from the Battlefield



You don’t have to read very far into Peter Arnett’s autobiography, Live from the Battlefield: 35 Years in the World’s War Zones, before you come to an obvious conclusion: the guy is either one of the most determined, tenacious, competitive reporters ever born, or he’s certifiably nuts. But there’s no denying he’s lived an eye-popping life. And, he can write. The result is a fascinating, gripping tale of courage, dedication, and unflinching honesty that is in many ways a history of war and reportage in the second half of the twentieth century—as told from the trenches.

I’ll admit right off that Arnett in something of a hero to me. When the U.S. first attacked Iraq back in January of 1991, we were still unpacking after our recent move from the Middle East to Australia, having left friends and family scattered from Kuwait to Baghdad to Amman. There simply aren’t words to describe the sensation of watching your own country wreck hideous destruction on people you know and love. I sat, tears running down my face, and watched the bombs rain down on Baghdad. I listened, furious and incredulous, while the American president and his Pentagon puppets lied to the American public. Peter Arnett is probably the only thing that kept me from putting my foot through the TV screen.

But before he became famous—or infamous, depending on your point of view—as the lone face of CNN in Baghdad, Arnett was best known for his coverage of the Vietnam War as a reporter for the New York Times. President Johnson—like Bush I after him—hated Arnett with a vehement passion. But then, you don’t win a Pulitzer Prize for reporting the story the Powers that Be want told. Arnett was in Vietnam for the innocuous beginnings of the American buildup in 1962, and he was there until after the very end. That’s right: when that last helicopter pulled away from the roof of the American Embassy in 1975, Arnett stayed behind to cover what happened when the Viet Cong took over Saigon. Like I said, crazy.

Of course, Vietnam and Baghdad are only part of the story. There’s his early life in New Zealand. His stints as an AP reporter in Bangkok and Jakarta and Laos. After Vietnam came Cyprus. Lebanon. San Salvador. Moscow. Afghanistan. This is reporting like it isn’t done any more. When a coup in Laos closed all the borders, Arnett swam the Mekong River to file his dispatches from Thailand. When the North Vietnamese overran Saigon during the Tet Offense, Arnett bundled his wife and two children (the youngest a newborn baby) into the bathroom and told them to stay put while he went off to report on the fighting.

Me, I think I’d probably have divorced him. But if you like adventure and history, I can’t recommend his autobiography enough. It’s riveting stuff.

11 comments:

orannia said...

I so can't imagine how gripping Peter Arnett's book is... what some of those reporters do to get the stories told...I'll have to add this to the TBR list (where very few non-fiction books reside come to think of it). Thank you Candy!

And he spent time in NZ?

Charles Gramlich said...

Have you ever read Hemingway's reports on WWII and on the Civil war in Spain? Sounds like he showed some similarities to this guy.

Susan/DC said...

Peter Arnett is the kind of man we like to read about in romance novels but would find very hard to live with in Real Life. OTOH, I'm extremely grateful that men (and women) like him exist, as the world would be a far poorer place without their bravery and truth-telling.

cs harris said...

Orannia, he was originally a Kiwi--didn't move to the US until late seventies.

Charles, I've stayed away from Hemingway, but I did read Orwell's Homage to Catalonia. It's a gripping, thought-provoking book.

Susan/DC, definitely hard to live with! His wife finally did divorce him, but she was very long suffering. Like you, I am VERY glad men and women like him exist--or did. Real reporters have been MIA recently.

Steve Malley said...

My art history professor used to say, 'Great artists were seldom model citizens'. I've often thought the same was true of a great many heroes as well...

orannia said...

My library has a copy of the book so I've added it to the TBR list :) Hmmm...Kiwis seem to pop up everywhere :)

Very true Steve!

cs harris said...

Steve, I think you've got it right.

Orannia, the beginning is maybe a bit slow, but after that it becomes truly riveting.

Anonymous said...

Candy,

I am a member of the MHS class of '72. Wow. What's happened to all of us? Very nice to see your trajectory.Weren't those crazy days?

Todd

cs harris said...

Hey, Todd; nice to hear from you! What are you up to these days?

Anonymous said...

These days I'm a daytrader living in Iowa. Former personae: logger, college professor, concert classical musician. I guess I'm too easily bored!

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