PETER ARNETT FOLLOWS TWO SIMPLE rules that have made him the best war correspondent of his generation: to "write only what I saw myself" and "never to do anything dangerous for fun." Those rules gave him a crucial margin of credibility and safety on some of the bloodiest battlefields of the last three decades. Arnett started his career as a combat reporter with the Associated Press in Vietnam, then jumped the abyss from print to television, ultimately making a new name for himself as Cable News Network's lone ranger in Baghdad during the Persian Gulf War. Controversy dogged him all the way; he was accused of undermining the U.S. war effort in Vietnam and of giving aid and comfort to Iraq's Saddam Hussein. An unreflective sort, Arnett, 59, doesn't like to argue such issues; he sticks to the facts and leaves the analysis to others. On paper or on television, he is the ultimate wire-service reporter.
His memoirs, published last week, read like a series of dispatches, patched together by flashlight in some besieged bunker and pigeoned out to what soldiers call "the world." Born in New Zealand, of English and Maori ancestry, Arnett worked his way through a series of fly-specked Asian newsrooms before he finally ascended to the AP bureau in Saigon and found his calling in the front lines. Year after year he risked his neck to witness some of the most hellacious battles of the war, including the slaughter of U.S. troops attacking Hill 875--"the most unnerving experience of my life," he writes. Arnett's gritty combat reports constantly undercut the soothing messages delivered by military briefers at the "Five O'Clock Follies" in Saigon. "I was not so much against the war," he writes, "as I was for accuracy. I believed that the truth was to be found in the battlefield and not in the briefing rooms."
Microcosmic journalism has its limitations. Combat reporters convey the horrors of war, the inevitable snafus and the eternal griping of the grunts in the field, without much reference to the big picture or the long-term objectives. In an interview last week, Arnett conceded that eyewitness news may be incomplete. "My philosophy of reporting is dependent on having access to an unfolding scene," he said. "Over a long period of time, the individual facets add up to an entire mosaic."
In Baghdad for CNN, Arnett had no opportunity to produce a complete mosaic. The Iraqis penned him up in the Rashid Hotel and showed him only what they wanted him to see. By then a naturalized American, Arnett drew fire back home for his descriptions of bomb damage, notably from the U.S. attacks on a "baby milk" factory and a shelter where hundreds of civilians died. The Pentagon claimed both facilities were being used for military purposes. Sen. Alan Simpson charged that Arnett was "what we used to call a sympathizer" and that his Vietnamese ex-wife had a brother who was "active in the Viet Cong."
Arnett convincingly defends his reporting and his former in-laws. He says the Iraqis, knowing they had a propaganda winner, allowed him to search the milk plant and the bomb shelter from top to bottom; he found no trace of military use. And in response to a slur for which Simpson eventually apologized, he says that none of his former brothers-in-law served with the Viet Cong. The criticism of his work in Baghdad doesn't upset him. "I had to expect an emotional response from Americans to my reporting from behind enemy lines," he says. After 35 years in the business, he's still a war reporter, not a commentator. His job is just to tell what he saw, and no one does it better.