BOOK REVIEW / Ace newsman in death plunge drama: Christopher Morris is alarmed by Peter Arnett's account of a war reporter's high spots: Live from the battlefield - Peter Arnett: Bloomsbury, pounds 17.99

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The Independent Culture
Peter Arnett lives in McLean, Virginia. If you want to meet him, let off a few bombs in the city. As crowds flee and panic, Arnett will be the guy running straight into the explosions and shouting into a microphone. On 20 January 1991, he was in Baghdad for CNN. American bombers were spraying missiles - some smart, some remedial - all over the city. The Al-Rashid hotel, where the last few western journalists cowered in the basement, had just lost half the ground floor to a stray Tomahawk. The time had come for anyone with any sense to leave with incomplete news but complete bodies. They all did. Except Arnett.

In Live from the Battlefield, Arnett's straightforward self-awareness does not extend to the realisation that he is mad. This is a matter of simple deduction for the reader. Just once, it is the assessment of a colleague - 'You're a crazy war lover who'll do anything for a story' - and is of course dismissed. He paints a very clear picture of the blinkered vision and drive that are the prerequisites of a good war reporter. 'We can't just walk out on the news,' he protests in Baghdad. He sees it as duty. We see a 57-year-old vet who, after 35 years of leaping about in a rifle range, now runs on pure high octane news. The more explosive the better. If war reporting is your whole life, then the living death of not war reporting is much worse than maybe becoming a piece of soft rubble in Iraq.

Arnett's life began 26 years after he was born, when he found himself swimming the Mekong river to wire out news of the coup in Laos. The unimportance of everything up to that point is clear from the brevity of its documentation (nearly half his life in the first tenth of the book) and the schizophrenia of his writing style. Early years are charted in a stilted prose full of tautologies and misplaced gravitas. Imagine the act of patting your dog described in the style of 'From Our Own Correspondent'. But give him a dose of armed conflict and the awkwardness vanishes in a stream of adrenalised clarity. You don't picture him writing it so much as shouting it into a dictaphone as sound effects of incoming Scuds scream from his hi-fi.

He left his native New Zealand as a rootless loner with an incomplete education and a desperate need to prove himself. Eight years in Vietnam brought excitement, the required ridiculous muscular prose ('there was more news per square foot than anywhere I'd ever been'), and most important, a life.

The extent to which he becomes homo sapinews is evident in the fact that while he devotes over 200 pages to the thrills of bullet-dodging in war zone D, hitching rides in choppers filled with leaking corpses and incurring the wrath of the White House with his censor-breaking reports on the use of chemical weapons, his marriage and children are lucky to get half a paragraph. This - in 1966 - is how we hear of the birth of his first child: 'I was spending less and less time at home with Nina (wife) and my son, Andrew, who was born in 1964'.

Outside a war, the writing disintegrates. The second half of the Seventies shuffles by in a few chapters of post-Vietnam dysphoria and feckless office journalism. A brief nostalgic polka with the mortars in Cyprus (including an absurd stand off between Arnett and a tank) then more amnesia - until CNN in 1981.

Like most headlines, 'Live from the Battlefield' is effectively a lie. For more than half his career, Arnett's work was hectic but far from live -filed as first-draft copy for syndication through Associated Press. Television crews still used film, and live reporting was the province of a few lucky radio journalists. The title is typical CNN - the language of Ultranews. CNN is why he can sell this book. He achieved more fame through a few days barking into a telephone in Baghdad than in 14 years of written dispatches from Vietnam.

But he's actually a dog from a different time, ill at ease with CNN's 'if it bleeds, it leads' ethos (now, sadly, the editorial war cry at Radio Four's Today programme). His machismo is understated. Mentions of his white Karmann Ghia blasting through the rice paddies are infrequent. He would baulk at Kate Adie's technique of appearing in every shot: 'One of the soldiers was injured in the accident' - subtext - 'that's me on the left of frame kneeling helpfully at his bleeding head'; or John Simpson's deranged schoolboy: 'but while their backs were turned we all sneaked out of the lavatory window and ran away with the tapes. . .' While he avoids such crassness, there's no question that every step he takes towards the Viet Cong boosts the insurgency of the first person singular. War reports are created and destroyed by the ego of the correspondent. If he takes you with him into the exploding fox hole he does the job well. If he then starts hammering on about the shell fragment he took in the arm ('luckily it was only a flesh wound'), he looks like an asshole.

The actual value of the communiques is never questioned. For Arnett it is simple: the more everybody knows, the better. Governments certainly take it seriously enough to suppress it. But what he doesn't acknowledge is that basically news is glorified gossip. It is not the truth that makes a story news, but its entertainment value.

What does the book add to our image of Peter Arnett - the man with the face of a leatherback turtle and the brain of a pit bull on steroids? While it mostly rips along like a strafing A-3 jet, it is overhung with a whiff of sadness. A picture emerges of a man with a hole in his life that is filled by war. He is a paradigm for his trade. A man who will surely die strapped to the body of a missile shouting 'blast me into battle - I want to smell the news'.

Christopher Morris is co-producer and writer of 'The Day Today'

(Photograph omitted)

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