A ‘Most Searing Experience’ : Television: Bob Simon relives his 40 days as Iraq’s hostage during the Gulf War in new book.
Compared to the years that some American hostages spent in captivity in Lebanon and Iran, is Bob Simon’s book about the 40 days he endured at the hands of Iraqi captors during the Gulf War a case of media myopia?
“The hostages in Lebanon were being released while I was writing my book and, for a while, it did make me feel a little self-indulgent,” the CBS News correspondent acknowledged in an interview. “I thought, ‘These guys were in there for six years--why should I be writing a book?’
“But this was the most searing experience of my life,” he said. “It seemed dumb to stop writing about it because some guys had it a lot longer. I wrote about it because I needed to write about it. I was in (prison) with my crew, but we didn’t have any cameras, so I couldn’t follow my usual instincts, which is to take it to a studio and make television out of it. I knew that if I survived this experience, I’d have to digest it. The only way I could do that was to write about it.”
Simon’s account, “Forty Days,” has just been published.
On the fifth day of the Persian Gulf War, Simon and a CBS News crew broke away from the heavily controlled government pools of reporters and stepped across a deserted border line between Saudi Arabia and Iraqi-occupied Kuwait. Spotted by Iraqi soldiers in a jeep, Simon, producer Peter Bluff, cameraman Roberto Alvarez and soundman Juan Caldera were arrested.
They were taken first to a Kuwaiti bunker and then to the infamous “White Ship” headquarters in Baghdad, where Saddam Hussein’s political enemies have been tortured.
The four CBS newsmen were interrogated, beaten with canes and truncheons, and starved by their Iraqi captors. They were finally released following a campaign by CBS executives and others that led to the intervention of then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
“Gorbachev was the only world leader with any leverage in Baghdad; everyone else was at war with them,” Simon said. “It was the Gorbachev connection that got us sprung.”
Without the intervention? “I think they would’ve killed us. I think they certainly would have killed me,” he said. As a spy? “As a Jew,” he responded. “It was not out of anti-Semitism per se , but once they knew I was Jewish, it was just beyond the range of their imagination that a Jew who would cross the line into Iraqi-held territory could be a bona fide journalist working for an American news organization.”
While in captivity, Simon said, he had no knowledge of the effort to free him or of the true course of the Gulf War. Once he was transferred to the camp for political prisoners, he said, “I was haunted by the idea that they’d decide to kill us one day and never tell anyone, that Francoise and Tanya (his wife and daughter) would never know what happened . . . the way that the families of people missing in action in Vietnam . . . live in a haunted world.”
Simon, 50, drew a distinction between the beatings that he and his colleagues were subjected to and the systematic torture of political prisoners. “When I told peoplewhat had happened to us, they said we were tortured,” he said. “But to me, torture is something more methodical"--the rack and other horrors to which Simon said he thought he and other prisoners might be subjected.
“We got beaten up a lot, and badly,” he said, “but in my mind, I found I reached a certain accommodation with the beatings. Your instinct immediately afterward is to check, ‘Can I see? Can I hear? Am I OK in the vital parts?’ But the thought of these other (methods)--I tried to keep that out of my mind as much as I could.”
Simon was critical of the restrictions imposed by the U.S. government and its allies on coverage of the Gulf War.
“What was wrong was that you didn’t see the war,” he said. “I think the decisions to keep journalists from the war was not for security reasons. Even with the kind of live coverage you have today, you can find ways to provide for military security. It all stems from Vietnam. The military has been determined to control the images of war since Vietnam. They’re convinced that they lost the war because of loss of political support back home, because people saw what was going on. The images of this war were to be sanitized. So you have shots of wonderful planes taking off, with brave, articulate pilots, then video from the missiles. You didn’t see any bloodshed, any suffering.”
Even the end of the war was determined by TV, he said: “The most important thing to the Administration, I think, were the images. I believe that they stopped the war after 100 hours because they were worried about what the images would be if (Gen. H. Norman) Schwarzkopf) continued. It was changing from a military victory into a turkey shoot, and there was virtually no resistance left from the Iraqis. Those images would’ve played very badly domestically and in the Arab world.”
Simon said that CBS offered him a variety of assignments after his release but he decided to return to Tel Aviv, where he now lives and reports on the Middle East.
Although he said that he regretted the pain that his capture had caused his family and friends, Simon did not sound like a “reformed” foreign correspondent.
“I’m old enough now that I’ve been to a lot of places, and there are a lot of places I care about,” he said. “If China were to explode, I’d want to be there in a flash. If there’s a big story, I want to be there.”