He Was There

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I’m not happy with the way history has ever been taught, in any class I ever went to. I mean history is the drama, for heaven’s sake, of human existence. And history is the story of people, and how they coped, how they met problems, and of the competition between them, the rivalries between them. With all the emotions—jealously, hate, love. And it’s never taught this way. It’s taught in this dull rote—dates and places. People never come alive. All these people lived dramatic lives. Every history lesson, every hour in history class, ought to be a terribly exciting lecture on the lives and loves of these people. And their personalities. Because the personalities of these leaders, and of those who sought to be, is what affected history. But we don’t learn it that way, and as a consequence history is a course that most people hate in school. It’s just a shame.

“I didn’t expect highlevel reaction. Nothing else had tilted Lyndon Johnson.”
 

Let me ask you for a couple of impressions that I think might interest people. You’ve talked to the great and the near-great for . . .

For too many years.

Was there anyone who stood out or exceeded your expectations?

Well, yes. Some exceeded it. Many disappointed me. To my mind, one of the really outstanding people was Anwar Sadat. I think that his imagination for what could be was a great fire that burned within him. And with that fire he was tremendously courageous. Personally courageous and politically courageous. The combination is very rare today, unfortunately. Tito also to a degree, for much the same reasons. He was far more doctrinaire, of course —a doctrinaire Communist—but he still showed a great deal of personal courage and incredible leadership. We know now just what it meant to keep that nation together all those years. His great tragedy, which he recognized toward the end, I know—he never admitted it in so many words, but it was quite clear—was that he was desperately unhappy that he had not provided effectively for his succession.

And how about disappointments? Who disappointed you?

Oh, I hate to get into that. There are probably more disappointments in politics than there are pleasures.

As a man who has covered more wars than any correspondent I can think of, did you share in the general alarm, in the press, at the way the Gulf War was reported?

Oh, terribly. Oh, absolutely. I’ve been railing against this ever since. This democracy was seriously compromised by the way the military handled the Gulf War. We still do not have—and perhaps we will never have —an impartial history of what happened at the Gulf War. Because the military prevented the press from beins present at much of it. I do not agree, necessarily, with my colleagues who are all for live battlefield coverage, now that we have the capability in television. I don’t think that’s practical. You’ve got to have military security. I can’t imagine having a live camera behind our own lines transmitting to a satellite that can be intercepted. What might appear to be innocent to a civilian cameraman could be terribly interesting to the opposing general. I think we must have censorship.

But what must be provided are facilities for the press to be present at all times, under all circumstances. Then the material that the press gathers goes through a censoring process. And if that is operating efficiently and well, and with proper civilian monitoring, there’s no reason material can’t be released almost simultaneously with the shooting. But we’ve got to have the record.

We don’t have a record of the Persian Gulf War, because the news people weren’t permitted to be there with the fighting units, on the front line. So all we’ve got now is the military version of what happened in the Persian Gulf. If we’re going to be asked, by our government, to commit the ultimate act of a democracy —and that is to send its men to kill and be killed in pursuit of a doctrine—we, the civilians who have spawned those men, have the right to know precisely what they’re doing in our name. This is not necessary only from an emotional standpoint; it’s terribly necessary from a policy standpoint. I maintain that those nice-looking, little gray-haired German burghers, who after the war told us, weepingly, that they did not know about the concentration camps, may have been telling us the truth. But that did not absolve them from responsibility. Because they applauded, some years earlier, when Hitler seized the newspapers and the other means of communication and decided to tell them only what he wished them to know about their government. In other words, they gave carte blanche to Hitler to operate in any way he wished, without advising them of what he was doing in their name. That is what, in effect, our army did in the Persian Gulf. And in Panama and Grenada.

This is another of the legacies, I imagine, of Vietnam.