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Manhattan to Baghdad

Despatches from the frontline in the war on terror

Phillip Knightley

Paul McGeough is a distinguished member of a fast-vanishing band of journalists, the roving foreign correspondent. Once upon a time, every newspaper had at least one. In the golden age, the '60s and '70s, some had four or five.

Few lasted long. The things they had seen, the drink, the corrupting influence of expense accounts and five-star hotels, the strain of a part-time marriage and the deadening feeling that history was circular and what they were writing about they had written before, pushed them into early retirement. The accountants, appalled at what they cost, made certain they were not replaced.

McGeough is still there. Working out of New York, he wanders the world for the Herald and The Age. This book can be seen as an expansion of his experiences before and after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York - a thicker, richer version of his journalism.

I see it as more than that. It is a riposte to the oft-voiced criticism of modern foreign correspondents, typified by Professor Virgil Hawkins, of Osaka University: "They race from one humanitarian disaster to another, with little time or background knowledge to grasp the issues behind the conflicts they cover."

McGeough's book describes his working life - the difficulties, the discomforts, the danger. But it also has thoughtful social and political insights about the countries he visits. This is a serious book by a serious journalist, a man with his heart in the right place, who has a natural sympathy for the underdog. And, like all good journalists, McGeough has been blessed with the luck of being in the right place at the right time.

He was in his New York apartment, 34 floors above Ninth Avenue, when the al-Qaeda terrorists struck. Being a good reporter, he did his best to get to the scene and describe it:

Six blocks from what is left of the World Trade Centre, the streets are full of crying people. The city is totally shocked Â… A massive mushroom cloud hangs overhead ... Papers that a few minutes ago were on people's desks now litter the streets and float in the air like a blinding white snowstorm. It is 10.30am. The second tower has collapsed.

But McGeough is thoughtful, too. His reporting from Israel and the occupied territories shows how the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, seized the opportunity provided by George Bush's war on terrorism to intensify Israel's battle with the Palestinians and their suicide bombers. "In a five-minute address in which he used the word terrorisma 14 times, Sharon told Israelis: 'We must fight this terrorism in an uncompromising war to uproot these savages."'

He says the Israeli attack on the Jenin refugee camp was not a massacre, but quotes various international organisations as concluding that it could well have been a war crime.

His descriptions of what he saw in the camp, and the people he interviewed there, leave little doubt about his own conclusions:

Nothing could prepare you for the reality of the destruction or the listless response of the inhabitants. The smell of decaying flesh came from buildings that still stood and from different sections of the rubble.

He recounts how Israeli soldiers shot at journalists trying to enter Jenin, and how his way was blocked by machine-gun fire.

But McGeough's sprint along the edge of death came not in Israel but in Afghanistan, in November 2001. He was riding on an armoured personnel carrier when it came under Taliban fire. A German correspondent sitting beside him, and two other correspondents, were killed. McGeough resists the temptation to become the hero of his own story, instead making the telling observation that "unlike the fighting armies and terrified civilian population, foreign journalists were there by choice".

With America's war on terrorism set to go on for the foreseeable future, McGeough will no doubt remain busy. He ends his admirable book with a few reflections on the major player in this deadly game:

The failure of the US to do anything about legitimate historic claims by oppressed minorities like the Palestinians and the Chechens ensured the continued festering of terrorist breeding grounds ... But George W. Bush was determined to march on Baghdad. Somehow, the President was in the wrong place, fighting the wrong war.


Manhattan to Baghdad: Despatches From The Frontline in the War on Terror by Paul McGeough has just been published by Allen & Unwin, (288pp, $29.95). Phillip Knightley is on of the world's most distinguished investigative journalists, and the author of the classic work The First Casualty: The war Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker from the Crimea to Kosovo (Prion and Johns Hopkins, revised edition 2000). This review was published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 22 March 2003 and is reproduced with the author's kind permission.


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