DANGEROUS COMPANY Inside the World's Hottest Trouble Spots with a Pulitzer Prize-Winning War Correspondent By William Tuohy Morrow. 395 pages. $18.95
JOURNALIST William Tuohy was clambering into an amphibious tractor to accompany a landing off Vietnam's Quang Ngai Province when a young Marine eyed him and demanded: "What's an old guy like you doing here?"
A good question, and one that Tuohy, a foreign correspondent for better than two decades, answers simply in this literate, readable and rich account of his adventures from Saigon to Syria, Belfast to Beirut. "Vietnam was the obvious major story of our time," he writes, "and I wanted to continue to be involved."
Remarkable in its range, the woodenly titled Dangerous Company involves Tuohy in headline stories round and round the globe, as he huddles in ditches to escape artillery fire in the Mideast, rides river patrols on the Mekong, is held hostage by Palestinian guerrillas, gets detained by Iranian secret police, and dodges snipers with British troops on the streets of Ulster.
The book brims with the kind of small gems that may get overlooked in daily news accounts but which, accumulated in book form, provide insight into international complexities.
Tuohy isn't given to great reflection, and the book mirrors what seems to be his personality: straight-ahead, likeable and modestly courageous. He isn't foolhardy (in Vietnam, he took to sitting on his flak jacket while airborne, to protect his vital interests). Nor especially ideological ("In a conflict, I prefer both professionally and personally to be on the side with the best chance of winning"). Nor overly romantic (he doesn't gloss over the drinking, divorce and other personal strains that flow from the foreign correspondent's lifestyle).
Formerly of Newsweek and now with the Los Angeles Times, where he won a 1968 Pulitzer Prize for covering Vietnam, Tuohy owns a natural ear for good quotes, and a practiced eye for spotting what John Galsworthy once called the "significant trifle."
For instance, in Vietnam a Green Beret officer tells him, "There was an intellectual mixup as to the nature of our role in Vietnam . . . The fact is our people were originally trained to be guerrillas not counterguerrillas."
Visiting a Palestinian guerrilla training camp, he notices that "two 12-year-old boys stood at attention at the entrance, one carrying a Chinese-made submachine gun he seemed to have difficulty holding."
And invited for a postwar visit to Hanoi, he observes young women strolling back and forth on the street at night. "At first, I thought they might literally be streetwalkers, but when I checked they said they were students who found it easier and cheaper to study their textbooks under the municipal lights than use small oil lamps at home."
Tuohy also has a wry sense of incongruity. He recounts watching from the roof of the Caravelle Hotel where white-jacketed waiters calmly poured drinks as bombs went off around Saigon, or motoring to the front during a Mideast war in a woman friend's BMW. Covering the Kurds' battle against the Iranian government, he stopped off in one home where troops were firing from the roof as "a housewife calmly poured us tea and shooed her young son away from the open veranda to keep him from being hit by a ricocheting bullet. The boy happily returned to an old Hollywood movie on the family's TV set."
A reporter of eclectic tastes, he manages, between wars, to lunch with Claudia Cardinale in Italy, visit Yeats' grave while covering the IRA and squeeze in a mischievous feature story on the Italian husband as lover.
Scene by scene, he builds an interesting, perceptive book that is a worthy extension of our long line of war correspondence literature. Despite occasional derring-do antics such as escaping from his Palestinian captors, Tuohy comes across -- as do most of his peers here -- as a level-headed professional, in the game both for his own exhilaration and out of a deep commitment to get us the story.
The book succeeds on several levels: as a primer on world trouble spots of the past quarter century, as an exotic and exciting series of on-location adventures, and, especially, as a memoir and tribute that wins our appreciation for the intrepidness and sacrifice of foreign correspondents.
Carl Sessions Stepp, who spent 10 years as a reporter and metropolitan editor with The Charlotte Observer, teaches journalism at the University of Maryland.