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A True War Correspondent

This morning, David Gregory interviewed NBC News Tel Aviv Bureau Chief and correspondent Martin Fletcher about his new book, Breaking News. READ EXCERPTWATCH VIDEOUsually we see Martin wearing a flak jacket and a helmet, cheating death in some god-forsaken war zone, so it was nice to see him in the safety of the studio for a change.I like to think of Martin as our very own Zelig; he just seems to

This morning, David Gregory interviewed NBC News Tel Aviv Bureau Chief and correspondent Martin Fletcher about his new book, Breaking News. READ EXCERPT


Usually we see Martin wearing a flak jacket and a helmet, cheating death in some god-forsaken war zone, so it was nice to see him in the safety of the studio for a change.

I like to think of Martin as our very own Zelig; he just seems to pop up at every important point in recent world history. Berlin Wall comes down? There's Marty, talking (in fluent German, of course) to dazed East Germans as they cross the border into the West.

Soviets invade Afghanistan? There's Marty, traveling through the rugged Khyber Pass with the Mujahideen. Iranians overthrow their government? Marty's in the middle of it, getting kidnapped by student militants. I keep expecting to turn on the TV to see Martin with Stalin or Attila the Hun or Ivan the Terrible ("Mr. Terrible, are you really that bad or simply the victim of a crude English translation?").

On Sunday, Martin and I sat down for a chat at a New York institution, the Old Town Bar. Here's our conversation:

DF: What drew you to becoming a war correspondent? What caused you to embrace this lifestyle the way that you did?

Martin Fletcher: I didn’t embrace it, it happened to me. And then I sort of grew into it. Working for any Western media organization, it’s all about conflict. Especially for American television, although I began with the British. So you get sent to those kinds of stories.

A lot of people kind of fall by the wayside and say, “This is not for me.” I, of course, was like a fish in water. I don’t know why. In the book, I spend some time trying to understand why. I don’t think, necessarily, with any great success. But I did my best.

Clearly, it’s an adrenaline thing. I love the excitement. I love the relationships you form with people along the way. It’s such an intense thing to be in a hotel in Sarajevo, there’s no water, the top three floors have been knocked off, there’s no walls, there’s no food. I went there once, and there were dogs everywhere but no meat. The next time I was there, there was loads of meat but no dogs. And it took time to put two and two together.

So the experiences you get made you appreciate life more. I don’t know whether that’s a very good explanation, but I just loved the excitement. I thrive in anarchy…also in my private life.

DF: About your private life…when you first started doing this, and you were putting your life at risk in war zones…how did your parents, other family members, later your wife and kids…how did/does everyone deal with what you put yourself through for the job?

MF: By closing down. My wife, interestingly, when she read the book, was in shock about what I’d done. She had really no idea, even though she’d known me for 30 years. When I’d come back from Somalia or Rwanda or wherever, she’d say, “How was it in Rwanda?” and I’d say, “Oh, it was all right.” She never quizzed me, I think because she’s not that interested in daily news. So it wasn’t a problem. I’d come back and the kids would ask, “What did you bring me?”

My parents worried a lot, of course. They had lost a lot in [World War II], so they were very concerned about losing a son. But that didn’t stop me. And they were wonderful and gave me a lot of support. My mother, instinctively, would always say, “Don’t go, don’t go!” and I’d say, “You know what, I’ll call you when I come back.”

DF: Safety instructions…the Jewish mother’s specialty.

MF: Absolutely. [There’s an anecdote in the book] in which my mother tells me not to go to such dangerous places. And I say, “Don’t worry, whenever I go, I always have an armored car, a helmet and a flak jacket.” And she said to me, “Martin, if you have to wear a flak jacket and a helmet to work, you should get a new job!”

DF: Going through the process of writing this book, was it a cathartic experience for you? What was it like to go over these crises and the death and destruction and poverty and everything?

MF: It was a fabulous personal experience, because I’ve always wanted to write. I wrote two books before that didn’t get published, and I knew this one would get published. When I went back and started thinking of all the places I’d been to and the things I’d done, I learned a lot about myself.

I’m not an introspective person. I’ve never been to a psychologist, I’ve never had any reason to examine myself. I’ve just gone from day to day. At a certain point, I realized, looking back that those days involved extraordinary events, and I experienced so much. Which at the time had just been yarns to tell the mates over a drink. But added together, [the stories] formed this incredible experience.

So in writing the book, it was very interesting to actually look at those experiences and realize, “Wow, they really affected my life.” Which I didn’t understand at the time. So now I understand myself a lot more than I even tried to before.

DF: Not to play psychologist here, but I will anyway. I think we’re shaped in some ways by things that are withheld from us or that we’re deprived of as kids. You write in the book about how your parents would not talk to you about the Holocaust, even though you knew that many of your family members had died during it. It seems like you basically make the argument that not knowing or not understanding the pain and suffering that your parents and relatives went through is what drew you to almost seek out the suffering of the world. Is that the conclusion you came to in the end?

MF: Yeah, very much. But I had no idea that was my motive at the time. I guess I started understanding it in Kosovo, when I was seeing these people that were like me and you. Europeans who suddenly were refugees in a freezing field with nothing. People who had everything at home, watching TV, and suddenly they’re in the middle of a field.

That’s when I started making the connection, “Wow, this is what it was like for my family. My grandparents, cousins, everybody.” That’s when it really hit home to me, that what I was seeing was part of my own story.

And that’s what I found in writing the book, that by understanding and seeking out other peoples’ sorrows, I was actually coming to terms with the sorrow of my own family…I could come to grips with the Jewish Holocaust through the pain of other people today that I was witnessing.

DF: Was there a story or anecdote that you found particularly painful to write about?

MF: Yeah, there are several things that I’m hoping don’t get mentioned [in interviews], because I always get tears in my eyes. I do feel that I have a load of pain inside me, other people’s pain. All these years, I never spoke about what I’d seen. They talk about post-traumatic stress syndrome. I’ve been through a few situations which would be the end of most peoples’ career. I just didn’t think about it, carried on. But it’s there, it has to be inside you.

The worst one of all – and we’ll see if I get through this story – Fida Ibrahim, the dying Somali girl where we decided to film her until the moment she died on camera. It struck me as a terrible thing to do, but also incredibly important to do it, so we did it. And we filmed her actually dying on camera – which was a horrible thing!

When you think about what it must have been like for her, if she could see at all – which she probably couldn’t…the idea of putting a camera in someone’s face like that is absolutely inexcusable. Many people when they hear the story will probably close the book and not want to read it.

Yet I always felt that, in the end, you’re helping people. We raised a lot of money with that story. A load of people sent money and wanted to know how to help, because of that story. But doing the story was very, very hard. Even when we were filming, I was walking in circles, saying to myself, “I’ve got to stop, I can’t do this.” But I went through with it, because I thought it was important.

DF: Obviously, there’s a lot of pain and suffering in the book, but there are some good times, too. On what assignment did you have the most fun?

MF: Well, it was an assignment that lasted four years. That was covering Africa. That was a four-year party. Very hard stories, incredible work. But that whole lifestyle in the twilight years of colonialism, for those who were able to benefit from it, and journalists were able to benefit from it.

For a stretch, we were going out and doing terrible things, working very hard, ’round the clock for weeks. I guess it was also my age. But I love Africa, it’s still my favorite place.

It also raised several strong moral dilemmas. Here you are, enjoying yourself, at the end of apartheid, which was a tragic time for everybody. Apartheid was tragic the whole time, but the end was doubly tragic for everybody. Even for the Africans who became free – it didn’t come easily. There was a war in Rhodesia [now Zimbabwe].

DF: Are there places where you think, “I had the best food here…” or, “the nightlife was best here…” What are your favorites in that sense?

MF: You know, it’s funny. I don’t think in those terms. The things that I like to do the most are traipse across the Hindu Kush mountains with the mujahideen. For me, that was a wonderful, wonderful experience, one of the best of my life. It was without doubt, the hardest.

Being in Berlin at the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of communism. That one day was the highlight of my career. I was there the night before for “Nightly News,” and when they heard the news that the freedom of travel was now permitted in East Germany, they had me go live from the Wall.

So when the first East Germans had the news, they started coming across in ones and twos – it became half a million people – but it began in ones and twos. And it was five o’clock in the afternoon on November 9, 1989. It was getting dark, so we had the lights up, so when these people crossed into West Germany, they didn’t know where to go. But they see all these lights…so they came to the lights, and that was me! So all these Berliners, the first thing they do is see Fletch!

I speak German, so I was asking, “What are you doing here?” It was great, amazing! So I think and see things more in those terms.

DF: You touched on your travels with the mujahideen in Afghanistan. You go on this incredible journey into the mountains with them, and you eventually come back and find that little of the footage is usable. In another incredible story, while working as a cameraman, you and your crew end up in the middle of a minefield in Cyprus. Your soundman is killed, several of your other colleagues are injured, and when you call the assignment desk with the information about what happened, the editor tells you that your story is incredible but that nobody will be that interested because President Nixon resigned that day.

So how did you reconcile the work that you were doing and the dangers that you were facing with the notion that sometimes you might get nothing on?

MF: It didn’t upset me. Strange response, probably. For me, it was the doing. It was being there and doing it. Of course, you want to get it on the air…otherwise, why would you go in the first place? But I just sort of shrugged my shoulders in those situations and moved on.

As I said, I’m not very introspective, and I just sort of moved on. I’m very much the glass is half-full [kind of person]. It didn’t make air, it didn’t get on…what’s next? I’ve always been like that. We do great stories all the time, and some of them don’t get on the air. I don’t pound the desk and say, “It’s gotta get on the air.”

I was more concerned with doing good stories than with getting them on the air. I know, it seems strange. But those stories you mention did end up getting on, but plenty of others didn’t.