Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Book Review: Live From The Battlefield, by Peter Arnett (1994)

A journalist who helped to define how the world perceived the Vietnam War and then went on to usher in the era of live television coverage of war-in-progress, Peter Arnett has quite the story to tell. Live From The Battlefield is a romp through the history of hotspots in the second half of the twentieth century, as seen from street level where the bullets are hot and the dead bodies are bloated.

Born in New Zealand, Arnett meandered through South East Asia gaining early experience as a scrappy journalist before landing in Vietnam in the early 1960s. Working for the Associated Press and based in Saigon, he witnessed the American involvement grow from a handful of advisers to hundreds of thousands of troops. For an outside observer like Arnett, the conflict appeared muddled and unwinnable from the earliest days, and his honest reporting made him famous while unleashing the wrath of segments of the American political and military establishments.

Eager to seek out the front lines, Arnett saw first hand the conflict spiralling in unmanageable directions. He witnessed combat and its immediate aftermath, sometimes sharing foxholes with soldiers and often coming under heavy fire. His reporting from Vietnam eventually earned him the 1966 Pulitzer Prize. Arnett made sure to be in Saigon when it finally fell to the North Vietnamese troops, ending a remarkable 13 years of reporting on the war.

Reporting from bloody conflicts in Cyprus and Lebanon followed, before Arnett left AP and joined the fledgling Cable News Network when it was still a joke. But in 1990, the world of television news changed when CNN negotiated with Iraqi authorities to be the only network allowed to broadcast during the early days of the first Gulf War. 

With an international coalition invading Iraq to drive Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait, Arnett found his second destiny, remaining in Baghdad as most other journalist fled and placing CNN on the map by reporting live from Al Rashid hotel as the intense bombing campaign began. Later in the conflict, he was granted an interview with Hussein. Once again by reporting what he witnessed and dispelling the myth of a war without civilian casualties, Arnett was accused by some of siding with the enemy.

Live From The Battlefield is an animated read, Arnett packing into his professional life enough excitement to keep the pages turning quickly. The Vietnam section occupies more than half the book, and there are maybe a few too many descriptions of similar incidents, Arnett seemingly eager to recount every occasion when he went bouncing on dirt roads in search of the latest battle in the Vietnam countryside.

Arnett's recounting of his Baghdad experience is remarkable, providing the inside story of a young network's struggles with new technology, grappling with clunky satellite phones and generators, other reporters bailing at the last minute due to the reality of an intense bombing campaign hitting home, government minders attempting to censor his every word, and finally the exhilaration and terror of reporting live from the city as the bombs start to explode all around him.

The book's last chapter is from Kabul, Afghanistan, Arnett getting a taste of the chaos that ensued after the Soviets withdrew from their own Vietnam-like conflict, the armed Mujaheddin turning their American-supplied weaponry on each other and setting the stage for an echo blast that, unknown to Arnett in 1994, would land in the United States in 2001.

Live From The Battlefield is war experienced in the first person. Arnett is not too concerned with the backroom policies and causes of conflict. He is more concerned with outcomes and consequences, and they are often uglier than anyone cares to admit.

Subtitled: From Vietnam to Baghdad, 35 Years in the World's War Zones.
441 pages, plus Index.
16 pages of black and white photographs.
Published in hardcover by Simon and Schuster.

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