Of all the things I don't remember anymore, here's one I do. As a boy, I dreamt about being a foreign correspondent, a war reporter in particular -- and I think that Bob Shaplen must have been the reason why. He was a friend of my family's, perhaps because, in the 1950s and 1960s, he was the New Yorker's Far East correspondent and my mother drew for that magazine, or perhaps because of a history I've long forgotten or never knew. What I still remember, though, is how kind he was to the young boy who was then Tom Engelhardt. It wasn't often in those days that a grownup, no less a grownup war reporter, would spend time with someone else's son barely into his teens. I remember, for some reason, those hands of his, large and wrinkled, that carried pen and paper into battle. I doubt, though, that I grasped much of what he had experienced when it came to war, but here's how the New York Times described his reportorial life in his 1988 obituary. In World War II, as Newsweek's Asia correspondent, he had
"plunged ashore with the Marines on Leyte in the Philippines in 1944 amid withering machine-gun and mortar fire. He flew over Nagasaki hours after it was devastated by the atomic bomb in August 1945 and wrote of 'looking over a volcano in the process of eruption.' He was with Mao Zedong in the mountains of Yanan in 1946; reported on the rise and fall of Indonesia's President Sukarno in the 1960s; wrote strategic and battlefield pieces from Korea and Vietnam and [in 1975] provided a gripping firsthand account of the fall of Saigon as panic swept over the city of abandoned refugees."
Who could blame me, under the circumstances, for dreaming that I might someday be like him? As it happened, I never came close, never made it to Vietnam, notepad in hand, or experienced war directly in any way. Still, he left me with a fascination about covering war and perhaps in some sense led me, a half-century later, to focus TomDispatch on America's disastrous wars of the twenty-first century, the ones Donald Trump, whatever his impulses, hasn't generally been able to bring himself not to fight (though he did at least ground a first wave of planes set to strike Iranian missile sites last week).
Otherwise, perhaps the closest I ever came to sensing the persona of a true war correspondent was sometime in the 1990s in what might have been the most peaceable city on the planet, Stockholm. There, I found myself at a conference with another of the great war reporters of our age, Gloria Emerson. She had covered the Vietnam War up close and personal for the New York Times and her award-winning book on that grim disaster, Winners and Losers, was a classic of the era, of perhaps any era. Little as I knew Stockholm, whenever we had free time, I found that the woman who took on Vietnam on her own was incapable of getting her bearings in a peacetime city and I had to lead her wherever we went. You could -- or so, at least, I suspected then -- sense in her confusion that a totally peaceable land felt disorienting to her.
In his bestselling book Kill Anything That Moves, TomDispatch's own Nick Turse wrote memorably of the war Gloria Emerson covered. He then experienced (civil) war himself in South Sudan, which he captured in his book, Next Time They'll Come to Count the Dead, and again witnessed it firsthand in the Congo. He has now returned from Libya where another civil war, part of the spreading planetary chaos created by America's never-ending war on terror, is fiercely underway. In his account today of war as a civilian hell -- from the U.S. Civil War to the present disaster in Libya -- you can feel both the strange attraction of such warscapes and just why, under the circumstances, peace might prove disorienting indeed. Tom
"What Does War Have to Do With Me?"
Combat Viewed from the Rooftops and Beyond
By Nick Turse- Advertisement -
TRIPOLI, Libya -- Sometimes war sounds like the harsh crack of gunfire and sometimes like the whisper of the wind. This early morning -- in al-Yarmouk on the southern edge of Libya's capital, Tripoli -- it was a mix of both.
All around, shops were shuttered and homes emptied, except for those in the hands of the militiamen who make up the army of the Government of National Accord (GNA), the U.N.-backed, internationally recognized government of Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj. The war had slept in this morning and all was quiet until the rattle of a machine gun suddenly broke the calm.
A day earlier, I had spent hours on the roof of my hotel, listening to the basso profundo echo of artillery as dark torrents of smoke rose from explosions in this and several other outlying neighborhoods. The GNA was doing battle with the self-styled Libyan National Army of warlord Khalifa Haftar, a U.S. citizen, former CIA asset, and longtime resident of Virginia, who was lauded by President Donald Trump in an April phone call. Watching the war from this perch brought me back to another time in my life when I wrote about war from a far greater distance -- of both time and space -- a war I covered decades after the fact, the one that Americans still call "Vietnam" but the Vietnamese know as "the American War."
During the early years of U.S. involvement there, watching the war from the hotels of Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, was a rite of passage for American journalists and the signature line of unfortunate articles that often said far more about the state of war reporting than the state of the war. "On clear days patrons lunching in the ninth-floor restaurant in the Caravelle Hotel can watch Government planes dropping napalm on guerrillas across the Saigon River," Hedrick Smith wrote in a December 1963 New York Times article.
As that war ground on, the pastime of hotel war-watching never seemed to end, despite a recognition of the practice for what it was. Musing about the spring of 1968 in his fever dream memoir, Dispatches, Esquire's correspondent in Vietnam, Michael Herr, wrote:
"In the early evenings we'd do exactly what the correspondents did in those terrible stories that would circulate in 1964 and 1965, we'd stand on the roof of the Caravelle Hotel having drinks and watch the airstrikes across the river, so close that a good telephoto lens would pick up the markings on the planes. There were dozens of us up there, like aristocrats viewing Borodino from the heights, at least as detached about it as that even though many of us had been caught under those things from time to time."- Advertisement -
"It Has Been Said That There Was a Woman Killed There by Our Guns"
Today, few know much about Borodino -- unless they remember it as the white-hot heart of the war sections of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace -- a Napoleonic victory that proved so pyrrhic it would have been regarded as the French Emperor's Waterloo, if the actual battle of that name hadn't finally felled him. Still, even for those who don't know Borodino from Bora Bora, Herr's passage points to a grand tradition of detached war-watching. (Or, in the case of Ernest Hemingway's famed Spanish Civil War coverage, war-listening: "The window of the hotel is open and, as you lie in bed, you hear the firing in the front line seventeen blocks away.")
In fact, the classic American instance of war-as-spectator-sport occurred in 1861 in the initial major land battle of the Civil War, Bull Run (or, for those reading this below the Mason-Dixon line, the first battle of Manassas). "On the hill beside me there was a crowd of civilians on horseback, and in all sorts of vehicles, with a few of the fairer, if not gentler sex," wrote William Howard Russell who covered the battle for the London Times. "The spectators were all excited, and a lady with an opera glass who was near me was quite beside herself when an unusually heavy discharge roused the current of her blood -- 'That is splendid, Oh my! Is not that first rate? I guess we will be in Richmond tomorrow.'"