In his memoir Foreign Correspondent, H.D.S. Greenway looks back on his career as a reporter and columnist covering postcolonial convulsions from 1960’s Vietnam to present-day Iraq and Afghanistan.
To the extent that this book has a theme, it’s that American nation-building failed during the Vietnam War and continues to do so today. “It seems that throughout my career in the news trade,” he writes, “America has been fighting and intervening against people whose fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers fought against Europeans telling them what to do or what they want.” In light of Islamists’ recent victories in Iraq, the story of America leaving South Vietnam with inadequate support to defend itself against the North is eerily familiar.
Anyone writing on colonialism and decolonization’s failures risks being accused of kneejerk leftism. But Greenway take a nuanced view of the conflicts he covered, noting, for example, the brutality of Israeli occupation in Palestine without vilifying the Jewish state. (He writes that “Israel’s tragedy was that it acquired an alien and hostile people just when colonialism was discredited and dying all over the world.” Like Greenway’s memories of Israel in general, this sentence does not “[imply]…that Israel aspires to be a latter-day Victorian England,” as a reviewer for the Wall Street Journal contends. It merely acknowledges the difficult situation Israel’s been in since the Six-Day War. Calling Israeli occupation what it is doesn’t necessarily ascribe imperial intent to the occupier.)
In the longest and most compelling stretch of Foreign Correspondent, Greenway recounts his time as a reporter in Vietnam. He moved throughout the conflict, granted the freedom that today’s embedded reporters lack, and noted that “the war looked very different up close than it did in these Saigon briefings.” Throughout the book, Greenway excerpts his articles.
Describing war, his prose grows uncharacteristically beautiful: “My first recollection of combat is that it is not at all like the movies in which the sound is synchronized with the motion. In real combat the sound travels well behind the sight.” His prose is mostly workaday, but occasionally indulges in clichés worthy of only the most lifeless travel writing, including, but not limited to, calling Laos a “colorful and tragic land.”
Greenway worked for publications including Time magazine and the Washington Post in an age when the journalism industry was more prosperous and stories were written by typewriter. After describing the vibrant, bustling Time building in London in the 1950s, he remarks “The last time I inquired Time’s sole London correspondent worked from home on a laptop.” He also recounts many journalists’ quips, and well as stories of drinks and surreptitiously edited expense accounts.
Unfortunately, many of the interesting stories and characters in Foreign Correspondent are introduced and then forgotten after a few paragraphs, so this book often reads like a catalog of anecdotes. This may simply be reflective of a foreign correspondent’s nomadic lifestyle, but makes for a jarring narrative regardless.
In Greenway’s memories of Vietnam, Foreign Correspondent transcends its often fragmented nature to tell the story of a journalist looking for the truth in a troubled region, unsatisfied with official reports alone.
“Without reporters in the field,” Greenway writes, “the giant is blind, barging into rooms and breaking the furniture.” “Journalists” are often reduced to a monolithic, distorting entity in popular discourse, but Foreign Correspondent demonstrates their necessity and humanity, even if it stumbles along the way.
–Published in August by Simon and Schuster