Troubling smell of death <br>
24 April 2006
By LINDA BURGESS <br>
The Dominion Post
One of the stand-out sessions at Writers and Readers Week a few weeks
back was with the charismatic war correspondent Robert Fisk. He was
fluent, passionate about his job, and arrogant.
Some people hated him. You certainly couldn't avoid feeling something
about him, he was so there. For a journalist, he was opinionated and
totally biased; the war in Iraq should not be happening. There was
also this almost ghoulish feeling, watching him, that given the
hideous danger inherent in his job, the Wellington audience could be
saying to each other some time soon: "Oh no – and to think we were
listening to him speak so recently."
It is ironic, really, that being a war correspondent is a glamour
job. War correspondents – or the ones we get to know – are often good-
looking. When young they have chiselled cheek-bones and if they make
it to late middle age, they keep their hair and have magnetic gravitas.
They wear romantic dusty quasi-military clothing. They run fast,
while lugging heavy equipment. They don't smile a lot. They find
themselves in fleeing crowds under fire; in a car being rocked by a
thousand starved and desperate people; wearing little but a hood in a
windowless locked room in Beirut.
They infiltrate war zones. They antagonise local authorities. They die.
The top level of war correspondents are so personality based you can
name them (the young Hemingway, Fisk, Pilger) much as you can the
ubiquitous royal watchers (Ingrid Seward, Andrew Morton).
So it's not surprising that Witness to History – the first of a
series of three documentaries in the Reporters At War series which
showed on TV1 last night, way past your bedtime – was most
fascinating for the people we got to meet.
And it was fascinating because it showed how those who report war
have sometimes got the power to change outcomes, as those of us who
will never forget the sight of the fleeing, naked, napalmed
Vietnamese nine-year-old girl well know.
It is this desire to show the world the unadulterated truth that
drives many of those who risk their lives to write about it.
Politicians in World War I, and in wars before it, were aware that it
was not in their interests for the public to know the true horrors of
war (it took the war poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon to show
World War II was the turning point, when every home had a wireless
and reporters accompanied troops to the field in troopships. Walter
Cronkite talked about reporters being so new that it wasn't quite
clear how they should present themselves, so they wore officers'
uniforms with a large C on an armband to differentiate them.
As did many of the reporters interviewed, Cronkite had a most
horrendous defining moment, which continues to haunt him. It was the
sight of hundreds of young American soldiers, covered in blankets,
lined up dead on a French beach. What he found most poignant, most
haunting, was the fact that they all wore the same boots. Every one
of them an individual – "Same boots, GI boots" – but different boys.
"I never got into the swing of it," he said, unlike other
correspondents who love it purely for the adrenalin. "War's easy to
cover," said one. "It happens for you. All you need is to be fit."
I guess I was more interested in the people for whom war was not easy
to cover, in particular two women correspondents.
Gloria Emerson was a fashion reporter in Paris when she inveigled her
way into covering the Vietnam War in 1969. The only reason she
finally got sent – "They didn't want to send a woman, it went against
their culture. One dead white woman creates an awful mess" – was
because they thought the war was over.
She wanted to go because no one seemed to be giving a thought to the
Vietnamese people. She wanted to write about them. Men wouldn't do it
– it seemed as if it was effeminate to consider the people.
She hated it. She always knew she could die, and carried a note in
her pocket detailing whom to inform. At times she wished she would
die, it would have been so much simpler. And she wouldn't have to
deal with the memories.
Does she regret it? Of course she does. It ruined her life. If she'd
stayed a fashion writer, she'd have married a rich man, had a house
in the Hamptons, drinks on the lawn every afternoon. She sucks hard
on her fag and, cliched as it might sound, her eyes are haunted.
Kate Adie, chief news correspondent, BBC News, 1989-2002, would be
played by Helen Mirren if they made a film of her life. She's less
reflective than Emerson, less emotional. Her eyes glitter like Allen
Pizzey's do when he tells you that it's the last adolescent
profession, such fun. He's written off nine rented BMWs in the last
three weeks, and no one expects him to pay for them.
Adie is more haunted by memories than Pizzey seems to be. Her first
big assignment was Tiananmen Square; she was there when it turned
from a student protest to a massacre. As she ran, she collided with a
student running flat out in the opposite direction. She got a wound
on her elbow from a bullet that killed him.
She's adamant that if you can get just one piece of crucial
information out, it might change things.
James Mates, who has the troubled eyes of someone who has seen more
than anyone should ever have to, covered the civil war in Rwanda, and
he gets the last word. He will never forget the smell. The smell of
"If you could get that on television," he says, tragically (and
deludedly) optimistic given our obsession with killing each other,
"it would stop it for good."
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