Bombs bursting on air

Monday Book Reviews

February 28, 1994|By Antero Pietila

LIVE FROM THE BATTLEFIELD: 35 YEARS IN THE WORLD'S WAR ZONES. By Peter Arnett. Simon & Schuster. 463 pages. $23.

REPORTERS often make exciting lovers -- not necessarily because of sexual prowess but because they tell a good story.

Peter Arnett is a case in point. His terrific autobiography chronicles his 35-year career of reporting in the world's war zones. His stories are good, his details and atmospherics impressive. And in the end, the hero always gets his girl.

Journalistic autobiographies are not an easy genre. Of the many that have been written, few are memorable. The best, though, seem to live forever. They include Eric Sevareid's 1946 book, "Not So Wild a Dream," a wise and wonderful chronicle about a small-town American's coming of age in journalism on the eve of World War II.

The Sevareid book, which has been reprinted innumerable times, lives on because it captures a certain time and a place. This is the chief strength of the Arnett recollections. To those who have forgotten his superb Vietnam reporting -- or perhaps had never even heard of it -- the book is a revelation. The man who is today known around the globe as a gruff CNN reporter surely can write.

"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," he says by way of introduction.

Mr. Arnett's journalism career began modestly in New Zealand. He soon moved on to Australia but quickly realized "it was not the grand adventure I had yearned." The ticket out was a tramp steamer to Bangkok, Thailand, and a love affair with Asia. By 1962, he was in Vietnam, working for the Associated Press.

"The violence frightened and repelled me," Mr. Arnett writes. "I wondered whether I had the courage to swim in those turbulent waters or match the legendary exploits of the foreign correspondents I had read about."

As the U.S. involvement in Vietnam escalated, Mr. Arnett became one of a number of young activist reporters who ventured to the battles themselves to gauge the success of the war. Their eyewitness coverage often conflicted with Washington's view of the war, triggering an intense and emotional debate about what, if any, obligations a free press had toward serving an American government's interests in a military conflict.

Over the past two decades, much of the vehemence of that debate has been forgotten -- although it was briefly revived when Mr. Arnett stayed in Baghdad in 1990 during the gulf war. Mr. Arnett's tense recounting of the Vietnam debate -- and the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations' attempts to discredit skeptical reporting -- is among the most valuable material in his book.

"From the beginning of the war to the end I looked at Vietnam as a news story, not a crusade for one side or the other," Mr. Arnett writes.

As years passed and such sterling colleagues as Malcolm Browne and David Halberstam gravitated to other, more peaceful assignments, Mr. Arnett stayed in Vietnam. Then came the realization: "I was learning that war reporting was what I did in my life. It was my job, not just a place I had been. I could do it not only in Vietnam; I could do it anywhere."

Peter Arnett was in Saigon when it fell in April 1975. Returning to New York from a war that consumed a generation was a letdown. When a colleague told him about having fun with a fledgling electronic news organization, Mr. Arnett joined Ted Turner's Cable News Network.

In his electronic universe, Mr. Arnett continues to live up to his news-gathering motto -- "to write only what I saw myself." If that wins him favor or disfavor in influential quarters, so be it.

Antero Pietila is an editorial writer for The Baltimore Sun.

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