We were not war lovers, yet who could fail to thrill to the war machine in perfect motion ... ?

Peter Arnett

To appreciate CNN correspondent Peter Arnett, you have to remember not just that he was one of a small contingent of reporters in Baghdad when the bombs begin to fall, or that he was one of the three whose line stayed open to the outside world.

What you have to remember is that while the bombs were falling and the explosions thundering and the flak flying and others were diving for cover, Arnett was the one standing up arguing with the Iraqi trying to get in the door. Arnett was the one laughing!

"Of course he stayed in Baghdad," said George Esper, an Associated Press colleague who was with Arnett during the fall of Saigon. "He's the ultimate war correspondent -- where else would he be?"

"I remember him messaging me in New York that day {in 1975} that the Viet Cong had just walked into the bureau with him," remembers former AP foreign editor Nate Polowetzky. "I told him to pull the plug and get out of there. He told me, in effect, to go screw myself."

Can't Arnett get enough of war? Wasn't 13 years -- and a Pulitzer Prize -- in Vietnam enough? Wasn't Nicaragua enough, and El Salvador? Wasn't Afghanistan?

For nearly 30 years the pride of Waitaki College in Oamaru, New Zealand, has been dodging bullets in the war corners of the world, eyewitness to slaughter and salvation, chronicler of the killing fields. No major figure in journalism has been taking so many risks for so long.

He was thrown out of Indonesia by one government in 1962 (many believe him the inspiration for the film "The Year of Living Dangerously") and beaten up in Moscow by another in 1987.

When Arab terrorists hijacked a TWA jetliner in 1985, "it seemed somehow perfectly normal to find Arnett already on the scene when I arrived," remembers CBS correspondent Terry Smith. "Or to bump into him in Tel Aviv during the Yom Kippur War... . He's the classic man of action. He's everywhere. In Vietnam if you ever got caught up in a firefight and Arnett wasn't already there, he would be along shortly."

The difference these days is that while most of his younger Vietnam colleagues have moved on to more restful fields like editing, book writing and speechmaking, Arnett, who's pushing 60, is still out there on the ragged edge.

"How can he sustain it? How many bombs and bullets has he seen?" says Smith. "My guess is he still gets that rush from combat. Nothing else gives him that adrenaline. You could see it that first night on television in Baghdad. In the middle of it he laughed! And Bernie Shaw said, 'No, this is serious.' And Arnett said, 'You don't understand. That's nervous laughter.' "

"He was scared," said author Neil Sheehan, another Arnett friend from Vietnam. "He was the only person in that room who understood the true danger they were in ... how easy it would be for one of the planes to hit that hotel. John Holliman said, 'Maybe we should smash the light.' And Peter said, 'It doesn't matter.' Bernie Shaw said, 'We could pray for fog.' And Peter said, 'It won't do any good.' He was the only one who understood what was really going on."

Arnett, says Esper, "is totally dedicated to being an eyewitness" in times of violence and danger. "He just can't sit back and take somebody's word for what happened. He has to be there."

Yet those who know him unanimously insist Arnett is no daredevil. Nor, they say, does he nurse any sort of death wish. "He's actually a very careful guy," says Sheehan. "He weighs the risks... . Of course, it's playing Russian roulette, but he's a war correspondent. That's what he does best. And if you're running CNN you better be grateful as hell you've got a Peter Arnett in Baghdad when the bombs start falling."

Man With a Thirst In the New Age journalism of blow-dryers and styling mousse, toward which much of TV news was drifting in the 1980s, Peter Arnett is a major throwback: a balding, wiry fellow, maybe 5 feet 8, for whom reality has always more important than appearance. He's spent most of his life as a print journalist, a tireless, driven wire service reporter whose eloquent, ironic and inevitably compelling stories from Vietnam influenced a generation. If Sheehan and David Halberstam, in the New York Times, influenced the nation's policy makers in those days, it was Arnett, with his wider readership in the AP, who wrote for middle America.

It was Arnett, in 1968, who got the most famous line of the war -- the one that more than any other seemed to sum up the tragedy of Vietnam.

"It was in the Mekong Delta," remembers Esper. "Peter asked an American adviser why he had used so much firepower" on the village of Ben Tre. "It had blown away the marketplace and killed all these civilians. And the officer told him, 'It was necessary to destroy the village in order to save it.' Peter saw the larger truth in that right away."

The U.S. Army, wrote Arnett in 1971, "like all other armies, was composed of the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly, the cruel, the brutal, the kindly, the gentle, the strong, the weak. We tried to write not a part of the war, but the whole. We fervently believed it was the best thing to do... .

"This called for detachment, not easy in Vietnam where the assault on your senses is dramatic and constant. The noise of battle, the excitement and ruthlessness of war unfolds each day... .

"We shared the war with the soldiers and we laughed and cried with them. But always would come the day of reckoning when you would have to write that those great, technically perfect helicopter assaults were contributing little to the successful prosecution of the war, because the enemy usually got away."

Esper believes Arnett was "just born with the particular instincts of a war correspondent. He sees and experiences the same things others do but he's somehow able to focus them better. I remember once he was covering an infantry action with some other reporters, and the others wrote great descriptions of the landscape and the sound of the mortars and artillery. But Peter tuned in on the radio traffic" between the command post and the outlying companies "and realized the men were refusing to go into combat. He wrote this great story largely told in radio transmissions. It was incredibly powerful. None of the others made clear what had happened."

But most of all, Arnett's friends and colleagues remember his thirst for action. The Associated Press's Polowetzky remembers him as "just a kid" when he began stringing for the AP in the early 1960s, one of a number of young Australian and New Zealand journalists afloat those days in the bubbling pot that was Southeast Asia. From the riots in Indonesia he moved to the war in Laos.

By 1962, when Vietnam was still an area of relatively marginal American interest, he had already settled in Saigon. Stanley Karnow, author of "Vietnam: A History," remembers that "other reporters came and went in Vietnam, including me. I lived in Hong Kong in those days and would just hop over from time to time. But Arnett was there from the beginning. He was there when the whole press corps was small enough to fit around the U.S. ambassador's dining room table for a briefing. And he just stayed on and on... .

"I've always tried to make the point," Karnow says, "that Vietnam was many wars: the political war, the economic war, the social war and so on. And most reporters were better at one than the other. Arnett, in my mind, was always the quintessential combat correspondent -- humping the bush with the troops. There are plenty of guys who say now they were war correspondents in Vietnam but were there just a couple of weeks to get their ticket punched. Not Arnett. That war was his life."

Terry Smith, who arrived for the New York Times in 1968, remembers Arnett "was already a legend by the time I arrived. He had made a life for himself in the war zone. And he wasn't one of those playing tennis at the Cercle Sportif. He was in the field. And he knew the country intimately. There probably wasn't a rice paddy from the Mekong Delta to the DMZ that he hadn't slogged through. He had friends in every province, in most districts and many villages. He was really plugged in... .

"And he took his thirst for combat right to the press briefings. He always went to them if he was in Saigon. It was usually Arnett in the front row, tearing the hide off of some young Army major who was trying to hand us some story about how things were. Arnett was the one who would always say, 'That wasn't the way it was, Major. I know. I was there.' "

Arnett, Karnow says, "would do things no other reporters would dream of doing. Like going out on raids or patrols with the South Vietnamese Army and no air cover."

Horst Faas, the legendary AP photographer whose pictures accompanied so many of Arnett's stories, is now the AP's European photo editor. Reached by phone in London, he said the reason for those dangerous patrols was "that there was always a better chance for action. The South Vietnamese liked to slap people around and provoke people," which made for better pictures and stories.

But Faas said there was another reason for those patrols with the South Vietnamese, a reason that points to the other side of Peter Arnett: the collector of books and Oriental statuary, the raconteur, bon vivant and gourmet.

"The great thing about going out with the South Vietnamese was they had incredibly good food. They would find a chicken or something and make a feast out of nothing. Peter and I would go out on those patrols with cans of Beaujolais on our hips. It was a good life."

The TV Metamorphosis After Vietnam, AP moved Arnett to New York as a special writer. He was miserable. "He made up his mind to leave when they had him doing long series about things like U.S. health services," says Faas. "He wanted to cover dramatic things. He was looking for something to rejuvenate him."

He found it at CNN. There, in 1981, Faas says, Ted "Turner made him a TV man, and a most unlikely TV man. He's not an actor like the others. He's a short little guy with a flat nose. All of us wondered how he could function in American TV. But they kept extending his contract. They had faith in him."

"We don't care much about dulcet tones here," explains CNN Supervising Producer Tom Farmer. "We care about what you do for us. Peter is extraordinarily well connected, and we used his connections in the intelligence community, for example, with salutary effect."

Farmer says the youthful troops at CNN were "frankly a little awed" by having a journalistic legend like Arnett working with them, and were astonished at his calmness.

"There's a tendency to think of a chronic wire service war junkie as wound really tight and explosive," he says. "Arnett is anything but that. He was stretched to his ultimate length long ago. He's actually serene."

Still, Faas says, Arnett was impatient for two years in Moscow ("he wanted to travel to places like Azerbaijan and Lithuania, but they needed him in Moscow") and later as a national security reporter in Washington. He jumped at a chance to go to the Middle East.

"He thrives on the danger," Faas said. "That was a happy man in that room in Baghdad... . Too many people in this business now think the whole point is to run a desk or be a bureau chief. Peter understands, and has always understood, that reporting is what it's all about."

But why must it be war?

"War is an experience unequaled in life," says Lee Lescaze, who reported from Vietnam for The Washington Post and now is foreign editor of the Wall Street Journal. "It's an adrenaline high and also a threat. It drives everything else from your mind. It's a story of unquestioned importance."

But every journalist, Lescaze says, has a different capacity for it. Some, he says, burn out. Others age. "Most of us can take only so much. I remember one of the bravest people I ever knew was a cameraman during the India-Pakistan war. He would do anything to get action pictures. One day he went out to a street in Bangladesh which Indian MiGs used to rocket every day about the same time. And he lay down there with his camera and waited for them. The MiGs came and he got these incredible pictures of rockets coming right at him. Then he came back, hung up his camera and never covered a war again."

That, he says, obviously hasn't yet happened to Arnett. "He's a different fellow than he was in Vietnam," Lescaze says. "His face is changed and he's going bald. But clearly he's running on the same batteries."