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From AJR,   December 1994  issue

A Detail-Soaked Dispatch from A Career Covering War   

Live From The Battlefield:
From Vietnam to Baghdad, 35 Years in the World's War Zones

By Peter Arnett
Simon & Schuster


By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     


Live From The Battlefield:
From Vietnam to Baghdad, 35 Years in the World's War Zones
By Peter Arnett
Simon & Schuster
400 pages; $23

As epic as an Indiana Jones movie and as brash as a Beavis and Butt-head caper, Peter Arnett's memoirs vividly portray a street-smart newshound born to chase tank fire.

There's hardly an analytical moment here, just detail-soaked, from-the-trenches reporting by the veteran Associated Press war correspondent who now haunts world hot spots for CNN. Arnett became a journalistic giant through more than eight grueling, Pulitzer-winning years in Vietnam. His spellbinding hotel room narration of the 1991 bombing of Baghdad made him a celebrity.

In between, he trailed trouble from Cyprus to Ethiopia, even taking vacation time to freelance from Afghanistan.

His work ethic? "The only way I knew..out-hustling everyone else." That included stringing simultaneously for three news services in Southeast Asia, churning out different versions of the same events.

His nerve under fire? "I could still function despite fear, and..I was willing to take any kind of risk for a good story." Caught in Laos with no way to file a scoop about a military coup, Arnett leaped into the Mekong River and swam to Thailand, his story and passport clamped between his teeth.

His reply to critics of Vietnam reporting? It was "a news story, not a crusade... I did not have a world view of the war. I was sticking to my rule to report just what I could see."

He saw a lot. Unfazed by being shot at, beaten up or held at gunpoint, Arnett plunged toward danger with a pit bull's tenacity, a street hustler's mouth and an uncanny ability to gauge just how far he could push the fates.

The book is full of matter-of-fact lines like, "I heard the familiar thump of mortar fire and I headed to it," and "I crouched in the stairwell writing a dispatch with my typewriter on my lap during a long air raid."

ýhether helping smuggle CNN equipment past Iraqi customs, conning a pilot into landing at a Saigon airport closed by fighting, or convincing a ferryboat captain to run a dangerous blockade, Arnett takes grit and stubbornness to a point just short of recklessness.

Born in New Zealand, Arnett was kicked out of school before his university years, evidently for a youthful version of womanizing. In 1951 his father helped him land his first reporting job; he was the only applicant for his second one; and on his first day at his third paper, he covered an ax murder. In 1958, after he and a woman friend decided to move to Asia, Arnett showed up at the Bangkok World and told the first employee he saw that he was looking for a job. "You can have mine," the man said, and walked out the door.

ýired by the AP in 1961 for $87.50 a week, Arnett went to Vietnam in 1962. Often teamed with photographer Horst Faas, he "found that no briefing back at headquarters could compensate for the drama of actually being in the field." His first-hand reporting on such stories as germ warfare, equipment failures and bungled operations (he reported the classic, and anonymous, quote, "It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.") led Lyndon Johnson to sic the FBI on him. But top AP editor Wes Gallagher backed him up.

Arnett again faced criticism for his reporting from Baghdad, including a story that U.S. missiles had hit a baby-milk plant.

He seems remarkably undefensive about all this, less caught up than American-born reporters in U.S. nationalism and partisanship.

Mainly, Arnett comes across as a footloose professional outsider, hungry for action. He makes no attempt to examine the great issues surrounding events he has covered or to look introspectively at journalism. He's a natural, operating largely on instinct, and this is his adventure story.

"There are people around here who believe you're a crazy war lover," a colleague tells him at one point.

No, Arnett responds, refusing to leave a dangerous assignment. "I will simply be doing what I'm paid to do... We can't just walk out on the news." l