Remember Peter Arnett, CNN’s man in Baghdad? For a few weeks back in 1991, he was just about the only Western reporter there while U.S. bombers pounded Iraq’s infrastructure to dust. Naturally, Arnett ended up getting a book contract out of the Baghdad deal, which is how things work these days. But even though it made Arnett a TV star, the Gulf War serves almost as a footnote in Live From the Battlefield (Simon & Schuster), an absorbing chronicle of his long, distinguished career. A New Zealander of English and Maori ancestry, Arnett was expelled from a proper British-style boarding school before he could take his university entrance exams (”Her name was Dawn,” he explains).
Succumbing to the sensual lure of Southeast Asia and the raffish, hand-to-mouth existence of a vagabond reporter, Arnett learned his craft the old-fashioned way, churning out reams of copy on everything from palace intrigues to the sport of horned beetle fighting for English-language newspapers in Thailand, Laos, and Indonesia. He once scooped the world press on a Laotian military uprising by swimming the Mekong River with his passport and his freshly typed copy clenched in his teeth to wire the story from Thailand.
In 1962, when he took a job in Saigon with the Associated Press, he began filing stories that made President Johnson apoplectic. No ideologue, Arnett wrote what he saw: that despite the courage and sacrifice of American soldiers, the South Vietnamese government was corrupt and the war was going badly. During the Tet offensive, it was to Arnett that an American major spoke the immortal line, ”It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” When Saigon fell in 1975, he refused to be evacuated and remained in the city filing copy until the Communists pulled the plug. Episodic, uneven, but intermittently fascinating all the same. B