Just a quick comment today on the extraordinary coverage over the past week of the “lethal mayhem,” as Roger Cohen labelled it in today’s New York Times, surrounding the Kabul airport as the United States and allies struggle to bring some order out of chaos in Afghanistan. Much of the coverage has been riveting, produced under the most difficult and dangerous circumstances.
But what stands out to me day after day is the first-person reporting of western women correspondents in the face of the open hostility they encounter from the heavily-armed Taliban fighters around the airport.
Jane Ferguson’s lead pieces for The PBS Newshour each night have been outstanding examples of the kind of calm, coherent coverage that is needed to make sense out of a senseless, chaotic scene. Ferguson remains inside the perimeter of the airport, interviewing desperate Americans and allies as they push through the gauntlet.
In Monday’s New York Times, Roger Cohen interviewed Ferguson, noting that she is one of the few Western reporters still in Kabul. The scene around the airport, she said, is “apocalyptic. People are fainting and dying. Children are going missing.” The scene, she said, “is like a very strange dream.”
Correspondent Clarissa Ward of CNN has also been remarkable, even confronting Taliban fighters who lecture her on camera about covering her face and hands in public. She continued reporting first-hand until she was able to escape aboard a flight to Doha, Qatar. Both women have set a standard for coverage that is at once brave, empathetic and important
The similarity of the page-one images is haunting: the fat, Chinook helicopter lifting diplomats and escapees above the vast United States compound in Kabul this morning, August 16, 2021; and the famous, April 28, 1975, photo of Vietnamese evacuees clambering up a spindly ladder to an Air America helicopter atop an apartment building a short distance from the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.
The two experiences are different, of course, but both images symbolize the climatic end to a costly, misguided American adventure abroad. Both raise the same troubling question: “Will we ever learn?”
Lord knows we have been warned, first by Rudyard Kipling about Afghanistan, “the graveyard of empires,” and in 1968, by Prince Norodom Sihanouk, then the leader of Cambodia, talking about the folly of the U.S. effort to prop up the crumbling government of South Vietnam.
In an interview I conducted with Sihanouk in Phnom Penh and published in The New York Times on November 17, 1968, the Prince forecast: “You will be forced to take your troops and leave Vietnam. You cannot block the majority will. You cannot stop the reunification and yes, the communization of Vietnam. The majority of the people want to be with Ho Chi Minh and there is nothing you can do about it. You would be wise to withdraw and let the Vietnamese settle their own problems themselves.” It took seven more years, billions of U.S. dollars and countless American and Vietnamese lives before the American effort collapsed, but every word Sihanouk said that day in 1968 proved true.
This account is included in my forthcoming memoir, “Four Wars, Five Presidents, A Reporter’s Journey from Jerusalem to Saigon to the White House,” to be published by Rowman and Littlefield on Oct. 15, 2021. The link to pre-order the book follows:
Recommended summer reading: “A Good Life, Newspapering and Other Adventures,” by Benjamin C. Bradlee, the late executive editor who made The Washington Post what it is today. It’s an autobiographical journalistic memoir, first published by Simon and Shuster in 1995.
“A Good Life” is a delight: entertaining, brightly written and deeply perceptive about the ethical and professional conflicts that confront journalists today. For some reason, the 500-page hardback has perched unread on my bookshelf for more than two decades until I picked it up the other day and was immediately drawn into Ben’s candid account of his early years, his time in Paris, his three marriages and many dalliances, his friendship with John F. Kennedy, his stint as Washington bureau chief of Newsweek and his selection by Kay Graham in 1965 as the eventual executive editor of The Post, a position he told her frankly he would “give my left one for.” (At Ben’s 1991 retirement party at The Post, which I attended, Mrs. Graham recalled that offer and joked: “What no one knows is, I accepted.”)
“A Good Life” is quintessentially Bradlee: irreverent, earthy and a revealing account of American journalism in the 20thcentury from Watergate through the Janet Cooke affair to ethical and national security issues that he confronted in his later years at The Post. It was, as the title suggests, a very good life and remains a very good read. If it is sitting unread on your bookshelf, or available elsewhere, pick it up and see what I mean.
Today’s Recommended Reading includes two excellent examples of international reporting from the Grey Lady, and an essay from Time magazine by Rick Hutzell, the former editor of The Annapolis Capital Gazette about the aftermath of the June 28, 2018 shooting that took the lives of five employees and still ranks as the most deadly assault on American journalism. “Riots Shattered Illusion of Coexistence in Israel. In Arab-Jewish Towns, Resentment festers Over Inequality” is the headline on Roger Cohen’s remarkable page-one account, datelined Acre, Israel, in today’s New York Times. It is a penetrating, perceptive look at the fallout from the inter-communal rioting that shattered Israel during the latest round of fighting in Gaza. “After Clenching Power, Tunisia’s President Holds Forth on Freedoms. Lecturing Reporters on Preserving Rights and The Rule of Law,” is the headline on a riveting first-person account, datelined Tunis, by Vivian Yee, in the international section of today’s New York Times. She describes being summoned to an audience with Tunisia’s autocratic president Kais Saied in the presidential palace, being cautioned about crossing her legs in front of him, directed to replace her sandals with a pair of closed-toe heels and then lectured about the new freedoms he is bringing to Tunisia. Here is the link to Rick Hutzell’s powerful essay in Time. https://time.com/6085485/capital-gazette-shooting-justice/