The war’s first two days may have been a far-off abstraction to most viewers, but the reporter was not.
The face in the photograph on the screen? You knew it. And the voice -- resonating from the past along with the present -- was also familiar, crackling with history that straddled three presidencies and two millenniums.
“There is an explosion,” Peter Arnett reported from his hotel balcony in Baghdad on NBC late Thursday morning as pictures provided by Qatar’s Al-Jazeeratelevision showed a city under siege.
On the screen, splashes of light flickered in the night. “Much smoke in the sky,” Arnett went on, speaking in short bursts to anchor Tom Brokaw in New York. “It’s clear a major attack is beginning on the city.”
And later: “For the last five minutes, calm in the city ... Two large explosions within a mile from us ... Two buildings destroyed so far ... In the first Gulf War there was far greater use of antiaircraft than there is tonight. Minimal compared to what it was in 1991.”
Arnett knew because he was in Baghdad, too, when U.S. bombs fell there a dozen years ago.
As he was late Wednesday for this week’s initial air strike in the U.S. invasion of Iraq: “Hello, Tom. I don’t know if you can hear me, but the sirens are sounding all around Baghdad.”
Soon Tomahawk cruise missiles slammed into parts of the city Wednesday in what the U.S. called a “decapitation” strike aimed specifically at Saddam Hussein, his two sons and other Iraqi leaders.
Did it succeed? TV’s own sirens blew loudly Thursday morning as reports of a desert ground war trickled in from reporters in the field.
Early in the day -- as TV’s cheerleading ex-generals and other former military men continued their seamless praise of the U.S. effort -- anchors were abuzz with speculation about whether it was Hussein or a body double who appeared on Iraqi TV following the air strike meant to kill him. “There’s debate about that,” Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said at a morning Pentagon briefing.
“If you had to bet the rent money, you’d have to say it’s he,” said CBS anchor Dan Rather, who interviewed Hussein in Baghdad recently. On the other hand, Rather said after Rumsfeld’s briefing, Wednesday night’s Hussein, who wore a military uniform, “appears to have thinner shoulders than I recall.” Could his tailor have given him wide shoulders? Rather turned wardrobe analyst. “He wears very expensive suits ... ,” he said.
If it was Hussein, TV’s guessing heads theorized further, was his statement taped before or after the attack? “It could be a body double and he could still be alive in one of his palaces somewhere,” co-host Hannah Storm weighed in during “The Early Show” on CBS.
On ABC’s “Good Morning America,” co-hosts Diane Sawyer and Charles Gibson went in depth with a mole-on-the-face comparison of two Saddams, one from an earlier photograph and another from Wednesday night, before a meticulous analysis of Saddam’s hat.
And on they went.
Arnett, though, is the only Western journalist whose presence on TV evokes the entire history of U.S.-Iraq acrimony.
He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1966 for his coverage of the Vietnam War for the Associated Press, and stayed around to watch Saigon’s fall to the communists. Just as he hopes, as a reporter, to witness the expected fall of Baghdad, almost as if this was to be his moment of redemption in a mostly celebrated career tainted in recent years by controversy.
Arnett and Baghdad have their own storied history. He was the only U.S. journalist allowed to remain in Baghdad through much of the Gulf War in 1991, his reports for CNN at once courageous and controversial in some circles, with former Sen. Alan Simpson and other U.S. conservatives maliciously accusing him of being an Iraqi dupe who undermined the war effort. Although Arnett survived that, his CNN career crashed seven years later when he was on-the-air reporter for an inflammatory story -- alleging that the U.S. used nerve gas on American defectors during the Vietnam War -- that the network later retracted.
Memories of that faded with Arnett’s arrival in Baghdad as the U.S. revved up for this month’s assault on Iraq. “Shops are already shuttering,” he reported earlier Wednesday in advance of the expected air strike.
Most of the media also had shuttered in Baghdad, closing down there and leaving with good reason, given the danger of remaining in a metropolis about to be clobbered by air, making Arnett’s decision to stick around with his crew (Charles Poe, Patrick Mark and Kris Kral) all the more heroic (or foolhardy, some would argue).
CNN was the only U.S. network with its own team still in Baghdad as of late Thursday; ABC was using freelancer Richard Engel there and Arnett’s reports from the Iraqi capital were appearing on NBC and cable network MSNBC while he’s on assignment for the latter’s “National Geographic Explorer” documentary series.
“My friends said to me, ‘Forget this. Look at what you’ve done in your career and in the end your history will be bigger than your disgrace,’ ” said the 69-year-old Arnett from Baghdad Thursday. “But in this business, you’re only as good as your last story. So I was certainly looking for the opportunity to make some kind of comeback, and the Gods just came together.”