The lives of journalists are rarely as interesting as journalists imagine them to be, largely because we spend much of our time chronicling and commenting upon the activities of others rather than doing anything of note ourselves. But from time to time exceptions can be made in the case of foreign correspondents, especially those whose assignments take them into war zones. There they get to wear camouflage, tote sidearms (if so inclined), witness the human condition at its most desperate, and interview people whose stories are often a whole lot more newsworthy and poignant than those to be found in corporate boardrooms or on Capitol Hill.
For about four decades, H.D.S. (David) Greenway was one of these. First at Time magazine, then at The Washington Post (he left long before I arrived), finally at the Boston Globe, he cut his reportorial eye teeth in London and Washington before going to Vietnam in 1967, then steered a dizzying course that took him to 96 countries, the last of them being Afghanistan. He went to the Globe in 1978 as national and foreign editor after six years at this newspaper — his family has deep roots in Massachusetts, so he was going, in effect, to his hometown newspaper — and though he was based in Boston, he “was in the unusual position of being a writing foreign editor, so I made many trips overseas in those days hiring good stringers and making contacts” as well as filing plenty of articles of his own. He retired from his editorships in 2000, but continued to write a column for the Globe and the International Herald Tribune.
Greenway understands that he has had the good fortune to be a newspaperman in the glory days of the business: “American newspapers were entering a belle epoque in the last two decades of the twentieth century, before everything changed. They were making more profit than most of their advertisers, and there was enough money around to fuel dreams of expansion.” He was able to build a foreign staff at the Globe from scratch and to provide it with on-the-scene supervision. That was then, this is now: Today the Globe doesn’t even list a foreign editor on its Internet staff directory, much less a staff of foreign correspondents. Greenway’s timing was very, very lucky.
His memoir, like most of those by men and women who have worked as foreign correspondents, is full of names and places, some considerably more familiar than others. The book is at its best in the extensive section about Vietnam, his first war and a place that more than four decades later still has special meaning for him:
“Many in the press corps fell in love with Indochina in a way I have not seen since in other war zones. Younger colleagues covering Central America in the 1980s used to express envy at the way old Vietnam reporters would reminisce, for few of the new generation felt that way about El Salvador or Nicaragua. The Middle East was fascinating and compelling but had none of the soft, seductive charms of the Far East. I became enchanted with the beauty of the Annamite Cordillera, the chain of mountains running down the Vietnamese coast, and the rice paddies growing green as a parrot’s wing.”
Greenway “came to Vietnam thinking that the war was just and necessary,” but its “complexities . . . were much more subtle than I had imagined, and the nationalist sentiments that colonized people were feeling everywhere were not on our side.” We “blundered in and blundered out again without ever really coming to grips with the society we were trampling underfoot,” a problem Greenway encountered over and over again: Wherever he went, the United States was trying to impose its will on countries and people it did not understand. Later he writes, “A recurring theme of America’s post-World War II history has been the sound of our sons of bitches falling from power, from Ngo Dinh Diem in Vietnam, through Somoza and the shah, up through Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak in the Arab Spring, men on whom we had spent much money and political capital to keep the past upon the throne.” As he says in conclusion:
“Americans were never good colonizers. Whereas the British had men, and women, too, who knew and spoke all the languages of Britain’s far-flung dependencies and had steeped themselves in their culture and mores, Americans tended to think none of that mattered. Foreigners needed to be more like Americans. And so they stumbled down the corridors of empire thinking that the world would have to learn our ways. Perhaps the essence of George W. Bush-era arrogance came in remarks made to writer Ron Suskind in 2002 by an anonymous White House aide. He scorned the ‘reality-based community . . . people who believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality. . . . That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ the aide said. ‘We are an empire now, and when we act we create our own reality. . . . We are history’s actors.’ ”
The arrogance of that aide’s view is exceeded only by its stupidity, and Greenway is right to cite it as damning evidence of what this country did in too much of the world during the years when the world was Greenway’s beat. He’s absolutely right about America’s failures at empire-building, and though he lets the British off rather too lightly, he’s also right that their rule was not without its beneficial side, a statement that cannot be said of ourselves. First in Vietnam and now in Afghanistan, with too many stops in between, we may have thought ourselves to be “history’s actors,” but on the whole we have been very bad ones indeed.
To emphasize this theme is perhaps to exaggerate its importance in this memoir, though it does reflect the writer’s deeply held convictions, ones reached in situ rather than in the comforts of this city. More broadly, he argues that “if there is a thread that connects the . . . episodes of my reporting life, it is the great process of decolonization, the single most important phenomenon of the last half of the twentieth century. The turmoil that it brought is with us still, and the issues it created are unresolved. Overshadowed by the Cold war in the minds and memories of Americans, decolonization affected far more people around the world than our struggle with Communism. Indeed, it was so often the newly decolonized countries over which we and the Communist powers struggled for influence.”
Greenway is obviously a pretty cool customer, a patrician Yankee with impeccable bloodlines that go right back to a couple of signers of the Declaration of Independence — a breed of cat that used to be much more commonplace in the newsrooms of big American newspapers than it is today — but he’s not embarrassed to show genuine feeling. In Cambodia, for example: “On a hot afternoon, when I was writing a long article for the Sunday paper, I heard an incoming rocket burst not far from the hotel. There was a moment of silence, and then the high-pitched and desperate cries of children screaming — birdlike screaming in a way I had not heard before or since. The rocket had landed on a school, and the sight, when I went to see, of blood-soaked sandals lying in the dust, with small bodies torn to pieces, was heartbreaking. But it is the sound of those screams that I can sometimes hear still in my worst dreams almost forty years later.”
Passages such as that one — and there are indeed others — are what elevate “Foreign Correspondent” well above the run of the journalistic mill. It’s easy for journalism to turn one into a cynic, but Greenway seems not to have succumbed.
By H.D.S. Greenway
Simon & Schuster. 301 pp. $26