During three decades covering wars, revolutions and natural disasters, Martin Fletcher worked his way from news agency cameraman to top network correspondent, facing down his own fears while facing up to mass killers, warlords and murderers. With humor and elegance, Fletcher describes his growth from clueless adventurer to grizzled veteran of the world’s battlefields. Here's an excerpt from “Breaking News”:
Chapter 1Today, when I watch reality shows like Survivor or Fear Factor, I have to chuckle. You think building a hut or sticking your head in a tub of worms is hard? Try treading through a minefield in Cyprus moments after your friend was blown up; or trekking through the Hindu Kush mountains into Afghanistan with the anti-Soviet Mujahideen; or sweeping through southern Zaire with the French Foreign Legion. When you are a war correspondent, the game you play goes like this: If you lose, you die, and if you win, you get to do it again, and again, and again, and watch as friends die, until you die or retire.
Every foreign correspondent I know can name half a dozen friends, at least, who have died on the job. Most would admit that it is all a matter of luck. As far as survival is concerned, you don’t get better at being a war correspondent; you just keep getting lucky. Experience doesn’t matter. My two most experienced friends, Neil Davis in Asia and Mohamed Amin in Africa, each a legend for his decades of front-line reporting, finally died in the silliest ways. Neil was killed by shrapnel from a tank shell fired in an immediately forgotten coup attempt in Thailand. Mo first lost an arm in a bomb explosion in Ethiopia, then died in a hijacked plane that crashed into the Indian Ocean.
My old mate Allen Pizzey, the CBS correspondent who knows the field as well as anyone, put it this way after two CBS friends were killed by a roadside bomb blast in Baghdad and another correspondent was badly wounded: “For journalists who cover wars, luck is like a blind trust fund; you can make withdrawals but not deposits, and you have no idea how much is left.”
You don’t study to be a foreign correspondent. You just do it, and grow into the role. My own introduction to war came suddenly, with no learning curve. I began in the deep end, literally. It was a hot Saturday, and I was swimming a hundred yards off the Hilton beach in Tel Aviv, doing a leisurely backstroke in the glare of the Mediterranean sun, wondering what had happened to my new friends Hugh Alexander, a UPI news photographer, and his Israeli girlfriend, Batia Grafka. We were supposed to meet at midday, and they were more than an hour late. Hugh was a gentile and Batia a hilarious, godless Jewess. I knew almost nothing could stop them from enjoying the quiet of Yom Kippur on the beach.
Two nights earlier I had dined with one of the Israeli army spokesmen, Captain Amnon Paldi, whose family manufactured clothes for Marks & Spencer. He talked in passing about the chances of war, but with no sense of urgency. None of us at the table knew that the Israeli army would declare a general alert the next day, Friday, October 5, 1973. They called it a precautionary measure in the face of exercises by the Syrian and Egyptian armies. War? The new Israeli army head of intelligence called the chance remote.
Since I had recently arrived in Israel, Captain Paldi’s aside that he would be spending Yom Kippur in his army office didn’t ring any alarm bells. But now, floating on my back, languidly enjoying the midday sun upon my face, it suddenly all added up. Amnon sleeping in his office. Hugh, a UPI photographer, not showing up. Those planes I’d heard flying along the coast during the night of Yom Kippur. War! It had to be. Nothing else would have stopped Hugh coming to the beach on this day.
I rolled over and struck out for shore. I ran to my clothes, slipped on my sandals, and, still dripping, raced past sunbathers and up the steps to Hayarkon Street. Already I saw the first signs. There were cars on the street, unheard of on this one holy day of the year when driving in Israel is forbidden. Uniformed men carrying guns and helmets lined the road, waiting for lifts to the front. Egypt wouldn’t open fire at the Suez Canal until 1:55 p.m., but word was already out. Soldiers were to join their units immediately.
Israeli intelligence had warned the government overnight that Egypt and Syria would invade that day at 6:00 p.m. The army had ordered a partial call-up of reserves, and the air force had demanded a preemptive strike against enemy airfields, which had worked so brilliantly for Israel in 1967. But Prime Minister Golda Meir rejected the generals’ advice and went with her political advisers. They believed it imperative that Israel should appear to have been surprised. The country would need to absorb the enemy’s first blow if it was to keep American support for the rest of the war. Israel must not look as if it had started the fighting, as it had six years earlier. So when war erupted, the only real surprise for Israel was that the attack came at 1:55, four hours earlier than predicted.
I ran past the soldiers and down Jabotinsky to my flat at 224 Dizengoff. The nephew of my colleague Rolf Kneller stood at my door, ringing the bell. “War,” he shouted when I turned the corner. “We’re at war!”
“Who with?” I shouted back. I was clueless; I’d arrived in the country less than a week earlier and moved into my apartment the day before. It was a fancy place, with two bedrooms, air-conditioning, and a large living room with a glass door leading onto a terrace. My biggest dilemma so far was where to buy shower curtains. War? What did I know from war?
“Call Rolf,” he said. “He’ll tell you what to do.” Then he ran off to join his army unit.
I took the stairs two at a time, put my spare camera batteries on charge, and phoned Rolf in Jerusalem. “Go to the Golan Heights, I’ll come down to the studios,” he said. “Don’t waste any time, you must go now.”
What was he talking about? What should I do on the Golan? He just said there was a war. It seemed dangerous. Anyway, I had another question.
“Where are the Golan Heights?”
“Ach, du lieber Gott!”
I told Rolf dear God couldn’t help me now; what I needed was a road map. But in fact, I needed far more than that. I had never worked as a war correspondent. I hadn’t even been a Boy Scout, let alone had military training. The nearest I had been to combat was playing soccer in London. I didn’t know the roads, or the people, or even the issues. Why was Israel suddenly at war? I had no idea.
War hadn’t been on my mind when I stepped off the boat in Haifa in October 1973. I was a twenty-six-year-old news agency cameraman with only the slimmest of journalist credentials. Two years earlier, I had bluffed my way into becoming one of the youngest writers ever on the staff of BBC television news in London. I was on the fast track, but it didn’t take me long to realize I was headed in the wrong direction. The post of writer was an in-house job that led to production and management. I never wanted to produce a show, or be an anchor. I wanted to be a foreign correspondent. Those were two magic words to me, glamorous and exciting and full of promise: free travel!
I have to admit that I was not a young man with a mission to save the world. Rather, I wanted to save money and see the world. I could not have been more naïve about the misery and the hardship I would witness, and the toll they would take.
In the BBC newsroom, I felt hopelessly bored. A dozen journalists sat around a large, U-shaped table, each with a more senior person to his right. As the junior subeditor on the flagship broadcast, the 9 O’Clock News, I sat at the far left. Next to me sat the subeditor. On his right toiled the senior subeditor, and so on until, opposite me, sat the assistant editor, who ran the show. Each person was about three years older than the man on his left. If I plodded on, I could maybe sit opposite myself in another eighteen years.
On one particularly black day, when I got a soccer score wrong and most of England phoned to complain, Derek Maude, the assistant editor, took me to task. “Fook me, Fletcher,” he yelled, “you’ll never be a journalist!” Maude wore an eye patch, but you can hardly say he lacked vision.
After a year of frustration and insults from Maude, I decided I couldn’t wait any longer to get into the field. I didn’t have the patience to train to be a BBC reporter, and it wasn’t clear I’d ever have the opportunity anyway, so I made a choice only the young would dare to make. While studying books on film, light, and sound that I borrowed from the local library, I talked Visnews, the world’s largest news film agency, into lending me a film camera. Three months later Visnews agreed to take a gamble and send me out in the field as a cameraman. Despite the considerable drop in status and salary, I handed a one-line resignation note to the Beeb and never looked back.
My first foreign assignment for Visnews was to replace their Brussels veteran, Maurice De Witte, an eighty-two-year-old cameraman who wore a suit and tie on every assignment and brought along his black miniature poodle on a red leash. He was a dear old man but angry at being replaced, and he couldn’t have been more delighted when I blew my first job. It was the first day of British membership in the European Community, and the best way to illustrate this for television was to film the Union Jack being hoisted for the first time alongside all the other national flags at the entrance to the EC headquarters. It was my first-ever job as a cameraman and I got there too late. I missed the story. I think a girl was involved. Maurice was delighted. Maybe this young whippersnapper would not be shunting him off into early retirement after all.
What Maurice didn’t know was that three years earlier I had interned for six months as a languages translator at Berlaymont, the star-shaped community headquarters building in front of which the British flag now limply hung. Showing the “rat-like cunning” that one famous British reporter, Nicholas Tomalin, called the key requirement of journalists, I went straight to the office of the chief doorman. Fortunately, he remembered me. To Maurice’s consternation, I persuaded the man to lower the flag and raise it again for me, while I filmed the historic moment redux. Today, I could be fired for that. Then, it may have saved my job. Maurice finally understood that it was time to move aside graciously for the new generation, and my career was born.
As it turned out, though, I was far from happy. In Brussels I suffered more than in London, barely emerging into daylight, filming stuffy committee meetings and conferences in the European Community headquarters. Overheated rooms, cigar smoke, mussels, and beer were about all I knew of working in the field.
Nine months later, when Visnews appointed me bureau chief in Israel, I was delighted. I rushed to share the good news with a new friend, the Israeli TV correspondent in Brussels. Ron Ben-Yishai tried hard to dissuade me. “This is where the excitement is, here in Brussels,” Ron told me, “the struggle for a united Europe. Don’t go to Israel. It’s too quiet there. The story’s over.”
He should know, I thought. Ron was an Israeli paratrooper, a former military correspondent for Israeli television, and a rising media star. But I’d had my fill of winter in Europe, and bitter clashes among commission bureaucrats over controversial farming issues like how many hens a cock should mate with a day, ten or twelve. I decided to move on to warmer and more peaceful climes.
That September, Israel was in a summer stupor. The temperature was in the nineties. The glory of its stunning victory over three Arab armies in six days in June 1967 had led to social complacency, military arrogance, and, six years on, political inertia. Israel was resting on its laurels. And so I arrived on October 1, 1973, with little on my mind beyond sunny days and sultry girls. Five days later, Egypt and Syria invaded.
The next time I saw Ron Ben-Yishai was two and a half weeks into the war, on the Egyptian side of the Suez Canal. He drove a military jeep and wore paratrooper gear. His face was blackened with smoke and grime, and an Uzi submachine gun was slung across his chest. He grinned sheepishly. “Well, maybe the story isn’t over yet,” he said.
Nobody understood why Visnews decided to assign me to Israel, least of all Rolf Kneller, who had been the Visnews man there for decades. As far as he was concerned, I was just a young pest who threatened his job. He had sent a series of nasty letters to management asking why they were being so considerate as to finally send him help after having overworked and underpaid him for so many years. What was the real reason behind my arrival, he wondered, and as bureau chief no less? Nu? What did Fletcher know from Israel?
Clearly, not a lot. Now, putting such resentments aside, Rolf impatiently explained how to get to the Golan. “Drive northeast,” he said. North I knew, but east was a problem. “Ach! Just follow the cars, they’re all going to the Golan.”
I hopped into my proudest possession at the time, a Mazda RX2. It was a sleek orange sports coupe with spider wheels and a rotary engine, the only one of its kind in Israel. The rotary engine was incredibly fast and quiet. I’d driven the Mazda from Brussels to Marseille, then crossed the Mediterranean by boat to Haifa with a trunk load of spare parts. Now my main concern, as I drove past citizen-soldiers kissing their families and heading to war, as I passed people painting their car headlights blue for the blackouts, and as I hid in a storefront when the air-raid sirens sounded, was my car. If it got damaged, I wondered, would Visnews pay?
Luckily, I had a full tank of fuel, and by now my camera batteries were partially charged. I got lost a few times and spent hours crawling in traffic jams, but by the next morning I was approaching the Golan Heights. The first days, when Israel was almost defeated, I couldn’t get close to the action, and didn’t really want to. The roads were clogged with private cars carrying soldiers and their gear, giant flatbed trucks transporting desperately needed tanks and armored personnel carriers, long columns trundling up the narrow, winding roads from Lake Galilee and Kiryat Shmona, and me in my orange Mazda, along with dozens of other pressmen.
After three days of filming the Israeli buildup on the ground and warplanes screeching overhead, I finally made it to the Heights. It was a rocky, hilly plateau forty by fifteen miles, with fabulous views over Lake Galilee to the west, while to the east was the snowcapped Mount Hermon, scene of some of the fiercest battles as Israeli and Syrian paratroopers duked it out for control of the strategic peaks. Whoever controlled the top had a straight line of sight over Damascus to the east and across most of northern Israel to the west.
As I entered the war zone, I was still well behind what I expected to be the main thrust of the Israeli troops, so I kept on driving east. Each time I stopped to film, I did a rueful check of the damage to the Mazda. The army vehicles along the rough tracks of the Golan sent chips of earth and stone smashing into my orange paintwork. In places it was beginning to look like a pineapple. In my head I composed a letter to Visnews requesting a new paint job on expenses.
I passed still-burning tanks and ambulances ferrying back the wounded. Dust clouds marked the progress of distant troops heading for the front. Knots of infantry rested at intersections. I tried to interview them, but mostly they were too tired or uninterested to talk. The only thing that sparked their interest was my car, especially the damage. They couldn’t believe I had brought such a snazzy car to the front, and neither could I. Overhead, Israeli and Syrian warplanes were locked in dogfights, with puffs of white the only clouds in the blue sky. Sometimes a plane would suddenly spout black smoke and crash in the distance. Mobile artillery pieces fired and moved, fired and moved, to escape Syrian targeting. I wondered whether in this drab, gray landscape of rock, earth, and battle vehicles a Syrian gunner would find it easier to focus through his crosshairs, if they really had such things, on a bright orange car and take it out.
I decided to ask for directions. Seeing a car stop on the side of the road a few hundred yards away, I drove over and struck up a conversation with one of the occupants, who turned out to be Nicholas Tomalin, the London Sunday Times’s top reporter. He was very kind and helpful and gave me sound advice. “Don’t get ahead of the Israelis,” he said. “And don’t stay in one place for too long. Also, don’t start driving around in a convoy of cars.” Whereupon Tomalin and his friends drove off, leaving me wondering whether to follow, even though he had just warned me against convoys.
I stood by the Mazda for a few minutes, looking at a few white trails and puffs in the sky, hearing muffled booms. Then I decided to drive after Tomalin and look for the forward Israeli infantry. I had just opened the car door when a flash of flame and black smoke rose behind the next low hill. This was followed instantly by the clap of an explosion. Moments later, other journalists whom I hadn’t seen before turned up with the news. It was Tomalin’s car. He’d been trying to turn around on a narrow track after realizing that the Israeli forward line we were looking for didn’t exist. We were way too far forward. Later I heard it was a shoulder-fired, wire-guided Sagger missile that had done Tomalin in. Carried by Syrian commandos, it was one of the new Soviet weapons that would surprise the Israelis in this war. Five minutes after advising me how to stay alive, Nicholas Tomalin was killed by an antitank missile.
That was it for me. I got into the Mazda, turned around, and raced back to safety. But there was no safety on the Golan Heights. It was a madhouse. Total war in an area the size of Portland, Oregon.
In those first days, Syria threw almost 1,500 tanks at the Israelis, who had 177. Syria had 150 artillery pieces against Israel’s 11. Syria’s new SAM-6 and SAM-7 missiles were decimating the surprised Israeli air force. Golda’s wish to be attacked first cost Israel hundreds of lives, and only frantic and heroic resistance saved Israel from losing the war quickly. But by Day Three the reserves had made it to the Heights, with their ammunition and vehicles. Now Israel was ready to fight back. The infantry were at division strength, backed up by brigades of tanks and artillery, and the Israeli Phantoms and Skyhawks took growing control of the skies. The Syrian army began to face a withering counterattack, with the vanguard of the press in hot pursuit.
I spent the next few days learning the unfortunate truth about being a war cameraman. The best stuff is the closest. No barroom briefings, no late-night note swapping, no exaggeration or plagiarism for the man with the camera. Either you were there, up close, or you weren’t. You either shot the pictures or you didn’t. As Robert Capa said: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” That worked for him until he trod on a land mine and died.
As Israel fought for its very survival, dozens of cars beetled around the battlefield carrying the world’s press. Sometimes these broke down and held up army convoys ferrying men and vital ammunition to the front. No wonder that, after a week of battlefield anarchy, the army took control and banned the press from the Golan unless accompanied by an army escort officer. But by then Israel had smashed the Syrian tank divisions and was chasing the bloody remnants back toward Damascus. The threat to Israel from the north was over, and the only question was how deep Israel would advance into Syria. Would they occupy Damascus? If so, I thought, it would be without me. At this point, exhausted and filthy, I steered my battered Mazda RX2 back home to see if I had replacements for the smashed sidelights, to buy those shower curtains, and to have a long soak and a rest before going on to cover the southern front.
Back in Tel Aviv, all the world’s major television news outfits had turned up and were sharing the same understaffed and overworked facilities at Herzliya Studios. Most of its male staff had gone off to war. The remaining personnel were working around the clock to accommodate the many time zones of the world. Each TV station or agency had one small edit room if they were lucky; otherwise they had roped-off space under a tree in the yard. CBS, ABC, NBC, BBC, ITN, the Germans, the French, the Japanese, the agencies — everyone fought, screamed, and cheated. The CBS bureau chief, Dan Bloom, was unbeatable because he knew all the low-down tricks. Whenever someone found a flat tire on a cameraman’s car, he’d shout out, “Bloom!”
At the end of each day, when dozens of TV crews raced into the studios with their film for the night’s show, producers would rush the cans to the film lab. If you were at the end of the line, you had no chance of getting on the air that night. It took close to an hour to develop a four-hundred-foot roll of film, and there were dozens of rolls. Cameramen would risk their lives and not even get their film developed. Producers screamed at one another and came close to fistfights. In the beginning, Dan would insist his film crews get back early, even if they missed some of the story, in order to get the CBS rolls of film first into the lab. Then he put in a few empty rolls, too, just to slow down everyone else. When the others got wise, a rule was introduced that a network could put only one roll in the bath at a time. Later, if Dan shared a charter plane with other U.S. nets, he would insist they wait for his man to arrive, delaying them all at small airports around the country. Meanwhile, Dan would have secretly chartered his own plane, which had already taken off with the CBS package.
Dan infuriated the other U.S. network producers, but I looked, laughed, and learned. On the Golan Heights I had first tasted war; now I was learning there was another war in the TV world — getting on air. Each station or network had ten minutes to feed all its pictures on the satellite. If one producer took a minute too long, the next producer up lost that time. This led to nightly screaming, cursing, and threats of violence, as Dan Bloom of CBS and Ken Lukoff of NBC pushed and fought over machine time, while the Herzliya manager, the portly Itzhik Kol, sweated, pleaded, and cajoled with the Hebrew equivalent of “Gentlemen, please!”
This was my introduction to the U.S. television networks, and I loved the intensity of their competition. The British correspondents and producers of the BBC were much more gentlemanly with their competition at ITN, reserving their true hatred for each other. One man, though, stood out: Keith Graves.
I knew Keith’s fearsome reputation from my time writing for the BBC’s 9 O’Clock News. Although only about five years older than I, he was a true veteran, a former Fleet Street foot-in-the-door print man turned television fist-in-the-face type. Keith was over six feet tall, with a jutting jaw, a booming voice, black hair, and big black glasses. He threw telephones in the newsroom. Slammed down typewriters. Ran over the foot of a doorman who wouldn’t let him into the BBC parking lot. At one time or another, he threatened to beat up many of the other BBC correspondents.
Like everybody else, I dreaded Keith. So I reacted instantly when Jerry Lamprecht, the Visnews producer who had come to run our operation, said to me, “Martin, we’ve got a great assignment. The army wants us to send a cameraman to be the world pool on some secret trip in the south, and that’s you. You’re going out with a BBC correspondent —”
“Okay, so long as it’s not Keith Graves,” I said.
“— Keith Graves.”
“Are you kidding?” I said.
After a week of war on the Golan Heights, I had no problem facing battalions of Egyptian commandos or tank divisions. After all, the Israeli army stood between them and me. The only thing I was scared of was working with Graves. I couldn’t know that Keith and I were about to go through the bonding experience from hell that would make us lifelong friends.
Yet Graves wasn’t the only thing wrong with the proposed secret trip. Being the world pool cameraman was intimidating, too. It meant I was to represent all the TV stations of the world.
I had been a war cameraman for only two weeks. I couldn’t tell Jerry I didn’t feel up to it, but I hoped the assignment would be a minor one. And, in fact, this was a reasonable hope, since most of the organized army junkets were a waste of time. They were propaganda trips to film some captured weapons, or interview prisoners of war who didn’t speak English, or pay rapt attention to a general praising himself.
I met Keith at the Government Press Office, and after a quick briefing from the spokesmen about where to meet our army escorts in the country’s south, we set off at 10:00 p.m. in my dirty, chipped, but robust Mazda. As I had hardly slept the night before after filming in the south and was now beginning a six-hour overnight drive back again, I needed help staying awake. I turned to Keith to chat. “I’ve had a long day,” he announced. He pushed the seat back as far as it went, pressed on the handle so it reclined, stretched out his long legs, folded his arms, touched his chin to his chest, and slept till dawn.
The way out of Tel Aviv wasn’t too bad, but south of Ashkelon the road narrowed until El Arish, and then it was just a tarmac track through the Sinai desert all the way to our destination, Bir Gafgafa, the southern headquarters of the Israeli army, about fifteen miles north of the Suez Canal. It must have been a beautiful night, with clear, star-spangled desert skies and the moon casting long, palm-tree shadows over the wavy sand dunes, but I wouldn’t know. I was just trying to stay awake at the wheel. All the way I had to wait in long convoys, maneuver around broken-down army trucks, and avoid animals on the road. But at least all the stops and waiting gave me a chance to stretch my legs and get some air. I wondered where this secret trip was headed and began to get excited. It had to be something special. I started to look forward to the challenge, and even Keith didn’t look that scary, sprawled over half the car and snoring.
In my week on the Golan Heights, I had survived my baptism by fire, and after almost another week of covering the southern front, I thought I knew what to expect. In the Sinai there was no chance of escaping the army roadblocks. Whereas the Golan was full of connecting roads and hard dirt tracks, and it was impossible to block the press, who, often aided by their gung-ho army escort officers, could always find an alternative route to the front, the Sinai had only two tarmac roads going north-south. So if you were stopped, you were stuffed. There was no way to drive off-road in an orange Mazda. The sand was too soft. And all the fighting was around the canal, far out of reach. The most interesting pictures anyone had gotten in the south were of naked soldiers frolicking under field showers. But with these permits from the Government Press Office, we sailed through the roadblocks all the way to Bir Gafgafa.
As I finally rolled into the Israeli HQ around four in the morning, Keith stirred, stretched, yawned, and asked, “Where are we? What are we doing?”
“I don’t know yet,” I said. “I hope it’s down to the canal.”
An army spokesman found us right away. No doubt my orange Mazda, even in its sad state, stood out like a beacon among the dusty jeeps. He gave us a quick briefing. On this same day, he told us, October 21, 1973, sixteen days into the fighting, the Egyptian military had given their first press conference of the war. It was a total rout, according to General Izzidin Mukhtar in Cairo, a forerunner of the Iraqi spokesman Comical Ali in Baghdad years later. The Egyptian forces, he said, were inflicting heavy losses on the collapsing Israeli defenses. Mukhtar claimed Egypt had shot down 303 Israeli warplanes, as well as 25 helicopters, destroyed 600 tanks, 400 armored vehicles, and 23 naval vessels. A reporter had questioned whether the combined Egyptian and Syrian claims of knocking out more than 600 Israeli aircraft might be exaggerated, given that the Israeli air force had only 488 planes. Did Israel have no planes left?
As for Israel’s expeditionary force across the canal, Egyptian officials called it an “adventure” that was suffering “heavy losses” as the Egyptian line held. In fact, earlier in the war the Egyptians did inflict heavy losses on the Israelis, who had been surprised by the supereffective Soviet-made SAM missile batteries that defended the Egyptian side of the canal, as well as by the antitank Sagger missiles that Egyptian infantrymen, like the Syrians, carried on their backs. On the Egyptian and Syrian fronts, Israel lost fifty warplanes in the first three days of war. The Egyptian troops killed and captured hundreds of Israeli troops and managed to astonish the Israeli defenders by transferring their entire Third Army across the canal into the Sinai desert, preparing the way for a thrust north into Israel’s heartland. On the war’s second day, Israel’s defense minister, Moshe Dayan, declared on television, “We shall smite them hip and thigh,” but off camera it was a different story. Deeply depressed at the dreadful news from every front, Dayan had advised his generals in the south to retreat. “What will happen, will happen,” he said. He believed Tel Aviv was in danger.
Israel needed to go on the offensive, and quick. The country’s war games had always posited a counterattack across the Suez Canal, and all preparations had been made. Before he had retired only three months earlier as commander of the southern front, Reserve General Ariel Sharon had marked with red bricks exactly where to punch through the barriers along the canal, and where to lay down bridges across the two-hundred-yard waterway.
But now Sharon, usually petulant and always controversial, was livid. He had been arguing furiously for days with the army leaders. His scouts had discovered a narrow gap between the Egyptian Second and Third armies, and he wanted to launch his fighters through it and across the canal before the Egyptians discovered the gap and sealed it. Sharon insisted this would win the war for Israel.
Two days were lost as his superiors equivocated. They were afraid that the general wanted all the glory for himself and was falsifying or exaggerating his reports. They were terrified that moving Sharon’s division might leave the way open for the Egyptians to break through to Tel Aviv. And they also feared that Sharon was plain wrong and that his vanguard across the canal would be isolated and massacred.
Then, when Sharon finally reached the canal, he still couldn’t cross. His giant fording equipment was blocked in snarling military traffic jams.
Sharon was like a bull on a chain. An army, he knew, needs to move, attack, keep the initiative, or it becomes a sitting duck. As he waited and cursed, the Egyptians mounted a furious assault on his forces massing by the canal. Warplanes screamed in, dropping bombs and strafing Sharon’s vehicles at the beachhead. A machine gun on his command car swiveled around and smashed Sharon on the head, drawing blood and knocking him down. Briefly his men thought he was dead, but Sharon soon opened his eyes. Now, to the annoyance of his rivals, the gray-haired general looked even more glamorous, with a blood-flecked white bandage wound tightly around his head.
They accused Sharon of insubordination, scheming behind their backs, ignoring or misinterpreting orders, giving misleading information, competing with other generals, and, crime of all crimes, using his military position to lay the groundwork for his entry into politics. But finally the order came, telling the Jews for the first time since the exodus: Go to Egypt. It was Sharon’s moment. Because the fording equipment still hadn’t made it, the first tanks and infantry floated across on dozens of rubber pontoons. Then engineers strung together a couple of narrow, rickety roller bridges and poured three divisions of men and equipment into Africa, as Israel called the Egyptian side of the Suez Canal.
Now, although vastly outnumbered, the first Israeli force of twenty-seven tanks was punching forward in Egypt, destroying those killer SAM missile sites that had shocked the Israeli air force and conquering a narrow sliver of land along the Suez Canal and the sweet-water canal that led to Ismailiya in one direction and Suez city in the other. The desert lay flat and invitingly open all the way to Cairo. But as Israel built up its forces in Africa, Egyptian artillery had their range and were pouring mortars and heavy shells on the Israeli troops while commandos hiding in burned-out buildings hit the Israelis with devastating bazooka fire. It was a mess.
The army spokesman finally ended his briefing. My head was spinning. What a hellhole it must be over there, I thought. Glad I’m here. So what are we going to do, talk to some prisoners? Then came our world pool assignment. It was straightforward enough. “Hop in a vehicle, cross the canal, and find Sharon in Africa.”
What? Keith smiled at me. We could hear the rolling thunder and booms of tank and artillery war from ten miles away. There was no letup. A helicopter swooped in blowing dust and dirt as medics raced forward carrying stretchers. Three trucks loaded with soldiers rushed past.
Two other journalists would accompany us: Hugh Mulligan, the legendary AP writer, and his even more legendary photographer, Horst Faas, who had won two Pulitzer Prizes, for his war coverage in Vietnam and Bangladesh. I’d been doing this for only two weeks. I felt hopelessly out of my depth, and it must have showed. Keith patted me on the shoulder and said, “Don’t worry, you’ll do fine.”
He helped carry my camera gear, understood what was happening around us, and asked all the right questions, while I was dumbstruck. For two weeks everything that had happened to me was a first-time experience. I was making it up as I went along. Now I was going to cross the Suez Canal and join what may well become Israel’s greatest military maneuver ever. Or its bloodiest defeat. But with Keith next to me and surrounded by tanks and soldiers, I was determined not to chicken out. Not that I had the option. There was no way back. As we reached the canal, clattered across the rickety metal bridge in our vehicle, an armored half-track, and turned right toward the Great Bitter Lake, with the crump of explosions behind and in front of us and the occasional bullet whining by, I resigned myself to fate.
It was dawn, and the sun was rising over Egypt. Our field of vision grew by the minute, and it revealed a frightening landscape. On the Golan, the vista had often been limited by hills, clumps of trees, stone houses, and twisting roads. Here in Egypt it resembled a grotesque tableau laid out endlessly before us: sunken commando speedboats upended in the canal, destroyed armored vehicles billowing black smoke, puffs of white in the blue sky as warplanes streaked high overhead, columns of tired infantry flashing victory signs as we drove by. In the distance was the immense desert, but close up, along the sweet-water canal, were green fields with orange orchards and palm trees, and among them devastated villages and homes pocked by bullets and shells. Wounded men lay by the side of the road, and blindfolded prisoners sheltered in the shade of the embankments. Sharon’s punch across the canal had surrounded the Egyptian Third Army, cutting off their food and ammunition supplies. Now Israeli artillery in captured Egyptian bunkers poured mercilessly accurate fire on the trapped Egyptian tank division. The horizon was dotted with burning hulks. An Israeli commander called it a massacre.
But the Egyptian high command was still calling the crossing a failed Israeli adventure, and the Israeli government still refused to confirm or deny it was even happening. One man wanted the story out, though — Ariel Sharon. We came across him eating oranges with a bemused Egyptian farmer while Egyptian corpses still lay on the ground. “Tell the world,” Sharon instructed Keith, “that Israel has crossed the canal. Two Egyptian armies are trapped.” Keith pointed out that the nearest working telephone was probably in Cairo. That didn’t stop Sharon. He told his radio operator, who in real life was a London taxi driver, to get through to the BBC. Within minutes Keith had the astonished foreign desk on the line. The connection was too poor for a live broadcast, but Keith got the information across, telling the BBC that he was in Egypt with the Israeli army, and that the Egyptian denial was, to use Keith’s word, “bollocks.” It was a world scoop. Keith confirmed Israel had invaded Egypt, and Sharon became a hero.
Then came an offer we could refuse. Five miles from the canal in the direction of Cairo, an Israeli tank division was hotly engaged with the main Egyptian defense force, which was trying to destroy the Israeli marauders and block their access to the capital. It became the biggest tank battle of the war. Military historians later called it the biggest tank battle since Stalingrad. The offer: Did we want to film it?
“Sure,” we said, “but how?” It was flat desert, and each tank kicked up its own sandstorm. Close-up visibility was nil, but from a distance I could film the general action. We thought it should be safe enough if we went out with an observation half-track—an armored vehicle covered with antennae and long-range binoculars and all kinds of electronic devices to track the battle and send guidance information to the blinded tanks. It kept at a safe distance from the enemy tanks. Hugh Mulligan, the AP writer, was smart. “I don’t need to go,” he said. “I have a pen with a range of ten miles.” But Keith said to me and Horst Faas, “I’ll go with you.”
What we didn’t realize was that, because the observation vehicle is the eyes of the tank force, it is the enemy’s key target. Knock out the vehicle we were on and you’d blind the entire Israeli tank force.
We climbed inside the vehicle, arranged ourselves as best we could on the hard metal bench, and fought for breath in the hot, musty, diesel-smelling space. The driver set off smoothly, seeking a strategic spot far from the battle. He settled on a small ridge. But before I could arrange the camera, we came under furious mortar attack. Shells rained around us with terrific booms, shooting clouds of sand into the air. As we fought to hold on in the cramped interior, the driver shot off the ridge and down onto the dunes, zigzagging at top speed while the commander shouted out, “Mines, mines, watch out for mines!” We were thrown about the inside of the metal hull, hurled into one another and into the sharp edges, everyone screaming and shouting over the roar of the engine. Shells continued to smash into the soft sand, which fortunately absorbed the shrapnel or we would have been goners. It was incredible war action, and I didn’t shoot a frame.
We came to a breathless halt right next to a small, closed-off barbed-wire compound. There was a sign in Arabic. Fortunately, we had an Arabic reader onboard. “What does it say?” someone asked. “Danger. Ammunition dump,” he answered.
“Oh shit,” the commander said, “let’s get away from here.” The driver revved up, turned, and headed for another so-called safe spot to observe the battle. Now I was sitting half out of the vehicle turret, my legs dangling in. I didn’t want to miss all the action again. Keith supported me around the waist to stop me from being thrown off as the half-track bounced along. Next to me, the gunner manned a fixed machine gun.
Only a minute later we heard a distant rumbling from the sky. It quickly became closer and louder. We looked around nervously. Where was it from? I rolled the camera just in case. It was an Egyptian jet. It roared by so low it half-filled my lens, and as the machine gunner whipped around shooting at the plane, the rat-a-tat of his rapid fire came close to bursting my eardrums. Again the driver took off, jerking the vehicle from left to right, leaving a crazy trail of sand cloud as we sped away. Then the plane, a MiG fighter-bomber, roared back and began dropping bombs on us. As we raced across the desert, the first bomb landed about fifty yards away and then a second bomb just in front of it hit and then a third. I swung the camera away from our gunner, who was yelling and shooting, to the first bomb and the next and the next, catching each explosion on film.
Keith gripped me tightly, although I couldn’t make out if he was helping me to stay balanced or stopping me from ducking for cover. The MiG was gone! We were okay. Not for long. Now he was screaming back at us from the horizon, heading right for us a second time, guns spitting into the sand. But before the fighter pilot could send us into oblivion, he suddenly jerked upward into a steep climb. An Israeli warplane was on his tail. There was a brief low dogfight, fighter jets wheeling and swooping and shooting, and the MiG, trailing black smoke, turned on its nose, its wings shaking. It smashed into the ground just over a hillock about a mile away. There was an explosion and a flash of flame. Dark smoke billowed into the sky.
I had it all on film. It was incredible. Horst Faas, the Pulitzer-winning Vietnam veteran, didn’t shoot a frame. He picked himself up from the floor of the vehicle and said it was the most dangerous situation he had ever been in. Me, I didn’t have time to think about it. I just filmed it as if it were on the movie screen.
It was weird. I wasn’t scared or shaky. I didn’t think about the danger. I had no options, so I did my job. Everything on the film I shot was in focus, although the gunner was up close, the bombs were in the middistance, and the planes were on infinity. I must have been pulling focus all the time. The exposure was perfect, although the gunner next to me was in shadow, and the desert and sky were bright light, so I must have adjusted from about f5.6 to f16 or f22 even as I swung from the gunner to the plane.
I don’t know why I wasn’t scared. It seems unnatural. Certainly, I was too excited. But I think seeing death through the camera lens made it unreal. The lens acted as a filter. The attacking plane and the bombs seemed several steps removed from my own space. As the Egyptian roared over us, my attention was focused purely on swinging the camera around fast enough to keep the plane in the middle of the frame, and I remember trying to keep the gunner in the left side of the frame for better composition. The fact that I could have been blown to bits just didn’t play a role. I was on automatic.
In war, automatic is a dangerous place to be, and I knew it even then. About four months earlier, a Swedish cameraman called Leonardo Henrichsen had shot some extraordinary footage in Chile. His pictures were still fresh in my mind. He had been on automatic, and it had killed him.
Henrichsen’s film shows a national guardsman who seems to be pointing at the cameraman from a distance of about twenty yards. But as the seconds tick by, it becomes clear that the soldier is in fact aiming a pistol. The camera does not flinch. Then there is a bang as the soldier fires straight at the camera. Still, the camera doesn’t waver, and after a pause of a second or so it pans slightly to the left, where another soldier aims a rifle straight at the camera and fires. He misses, too.
Seven seconds tick by. Henrichsen has ample time to understand the threat and retreat. But the cameraman has become an extension of his camera. He does not feel his own presence. He is not there anymore; he is no longer a cameraman but just a camera, an artificial eye. The lens has removed him from the action. The view through the viewfinder is square, like watching television. And it shows the action in black and white, not color, which distances him further. It does not register in the cameraman’s mind that he is holding a camera and could die; if instinct kicks in at all, it is fight or flight, and Henrichsen subconsciously decides to fight. But he isn’t holding a gun to fight with, just a camera. Doesn’t he understand the danger? By now the television viewer is silently screaming to the cameraman to put the camera down, but it’s too late. The soldier takes a few steps forward, still aiming his rifle. He shoots again. The camera microphone records the sharp crack. The picture whirls giddily and goes to black. Leonardo Henrichsen filmed his own death.
With bombs falling and machine guns firing, how close had I come to that? Hadn’t I understood the danger I was in? Clearly not. My adrenaline was pumping, and I have rarely felt so alive as when Keith yelled, “He’s crashed!” and the plane exploded into the desert.
That night, we caught up with General Sharon in his desert headquarters. He was standing at the center of a circle of armored vehicles, using a jeep hood as a table, feasting on caviar and champagne that his wife, Lily, had packed for him. He looked the very picture of a warrior, with his bandaged head and his company of generals and soldiers. They were silhouettes in the half-moon, with the occasional jeep’s headlight lighting the scene further and throwing long shadows.
Sharon greeted us cheerfully but was deep in discussion. At this point in the campaign, he was berating the officers in southern command about the need to continue along the sweet-water canal to attack the Egyptian town of Ismailiya and cut off the Egyptian Second Army, after he’d already surrounded the Third. But pressure was growing on Israel from the United States and the Soviet Union to stay in their current positions and cease firing. Sharon openly cursed his commanders for delaying his crossing of the canal. If they had moved when he had demanded, he said, he would have conquered Ismailiya the day before.
It was freezing at night, as the desert can be. The desert deceives you. The hot sun, the warm sand, the clear sky, the zillion bright stars — how pleasant, you think. Then, suddenly, the temperature begins to drop. The call to the world pool had taken us by surprise, and Keith and I hadn’t known we would be at the front line overnight. We had brought no clothes or bedding, just a bag with film and camera batteries. I was wearing only a thin cotton T-shirt, and Keith had a safari shirt. We slept on the sand, half-sheltered from the wind by an armored personnel carrier, covered by a piece of flat cardboard we’d scavenged. But I fell asleep with a smile on my face, and it wasn’t because of Keith next to me. That MiG! I was thinking. Great stuff!
We were in the middle of nowhere, so we couldn’t ship the film back to Tel Aviv for broadcast. That would have to wait till we got out of Egypt. I couldn’t wait to look at the film.
The next day, October 22, 1973, to our incredible disappointment, a cease-fire was declared. The savings in lives and property didn’t occur to me. This was a disaster, I thought. What good would great war film be if there was peace? Who would care, except the archives? The story had moved on. Now the TV stations would want film showing peaceful scenes of soldiers waiting by their tanks, praying, calling home, smiling, joking. They would want images of convoys of armored vehicles returning across the canal to Israel, happy soldiers giving victory signs and smoking cigarettes, relieved Egyptian fellahin offering oranges and tea to the departing invaders. The tank battle was history. Peace! Keith and I were devastated.
We went to Sharon and told him we needed to get a flight back to Tel Aviv immediately. Could he arrange a jeep and a military flight from the desert airfield? We needed to get our film back now!
It was then that I got an insight into Ariel Sharon that stayed with me forever and informed all my subsequent reporting on this controversial army general who became an even more controversial defense minister and then prime minister. When we anxiously told him we needed to get out right away because the fighting was over, Sharon laughed. “Cease-fire?” he said. “Not yet. Stay here. Come with me to Ismailiya.”
“But the government has agreed on a cease-fire,” I said.
He laughed again and raised an eyebrow.
As it turned out, the general was right. The cease-fire broke down immediately. It was never clear who resumed firing. I can only say it was no surprise to Sharon. He led his men in a last charge along the canal to the very entrance to Ismailiya, but two days later, on October 24, another cease-fire was declared, and this time it stuck. By now, though, we were back in Tel Aviv with our scoop.
What I understood about Sharon was that he would never get enough. He would always want more, another mile, another success, another victory. He was winning, he wanted to keep fighting, and everybody above him, the army commanders, the government leaders, was holding him back. This was Ariel Sharon. An inspiring leader, a bulldozer with no brake pedal.
Later, Israel’s defense minister, Moshe Dayan, who called Ariel Sharon the Israeli army’s number one soldier, told Keith that if the crossing of the canal had failed, Sharon would have been court-martialed for disobeying orders. Instead, Dayan said, Sharon was a hero, and after that war Israel needed a hero very badly.
I was beginning to learn the awful exhilaration of the battlefield, where careers are made and lives are ruined or lost. I enjoyed the anarchy and the adrenaline, but I never went as far down that dangerous road as Tim Page, the Vietnam photographer. After being seriously wounded for the third time, he was offered the chance to write a book that would, once and for all, take the glamour out of war. He turned it down, saying: “Jesus, take the glamour out of war? How the hell can you do that? You can’t take the glamour out of a tank burning or a helicopter blowing up. It’s like trying to take the glamour out of sex. War is good for you.”*
War is good for you? How dumb is that? Today I’d ask, What about the victims? Sure, we film them, even feel sorry for them, but who are they? After we take their pictures, do we even bother to think of them again?
Back then, however, with no preparation for war, I was swept along by the drama and asked few questions. I was slow to understand the import of what I was witnessing. When an Egyptian soldier surrendered to our jeep on the pool trip, he lifted up his robe, and at first I had no idea what he was holding in the hand that was cupped to his stomach. It was something red and streaky-pale and mushy. It looked like raw meat. It was his guts spilling out of a bullet wound. Soldiers used my T-shirt to blindfold him. I put my arm around his shoulders to steady him as he bounced up and down on the jeep. He had an IV drip in his arm that ran dry. He kept nodding at it with wide, terrified eyes, telling me, “Finish, finish.” There was nothing I could do but keep filming. Keith helped the medics take him away, but soon we were told he had died. I felt I had landed in another world, a third or fourth dimension. I didn’t know things like this were possible, yet I was in the thick of it, filming, staying calm, aloof even, doing my job.
Looking back, I can’t say I enjoyed the horrors of war, but I do believe war engaged the senses in a way I had never experienced. I had never seen a warplane drop a bomb before, except in the movies, and I’d never felt a barrage of mortar shells shake the ground, or heard the whine of a shell overhead or the crack of a bullet close by, let alone seen or smelled a smoking body next to a burning tank. I’d never imagined what a man’s guts look like when they spill through a hole in his stomach, or the expression on his face as he holds them in his hands and asks for help.
Since my initiation in the Yom Kippur War, I have met desperate people all over the globe — people without choices and without solutions, people to whom the platitude “Don’t worry, it’ll be all right” has no meaning, because it won’t be all right, and they know it. The more I have seen of such people, the more distorted my youthful view of war has come to seem. What was I thinking anyway? Were my perceptions part of an extreme zero-sum game, in which another person’s misfortune means you value your own life more? Or were they just plain stupid, like the comment by Tim Page, which shows just how far removed young men can be from what war is really all about — pain, needless suffering, and mindless hatred?
Excerpted from "Breaking News" by Martin Fletcher. Copyright © 2008 Martin Fletcher. Reprinted with permission of Thomas Dunne Books. All rights reserved.