The hotel is very important to war correspondents. The right hotel is either the best hotel in town or, when the towns get small enough, the only hotel. Getting a room in it is the same thing to a correspondent as getting the high ground is to the people who actually have to fight the war.
You want the same thing a field commander wants from the high ground: good communications, a sense of both impregnability and proximity to violence, shelter from incoming. You also want room service, a 24-hour restaurant.
In particular, you want a bar, something along the lines of the terrace of the Continental in Saigon, strategically located so you could see everything happening on Tu Do Street. Or the Intercontinental in Tehran, where you could drink chilled wine and watch "Deep Throat" in an ad-hoc 10th-floor press club while the angry crowds in the streets below shook fists and called for death to the American Satan. You need a place to study the competition, show off your safari jacket and swap expense account stories -- the time you tried to write off the sherpas or bought the chicken for the animal sacrifice. Then there's the fight over the receipt, after you've told the waiter to leave it blank. It's all part of the romance of desolation that lures journalists so -- love among the ruins.
Drinking is illegal in Saudi Arabia, so there are no bars. On the other hand, in Dhahran, the Dhahran International is the good, right and, as it happens, only hotel. It has phones with American jacks so you can plug your lap-top computer right into the wall, the military public affairs officers have their office on the third floor, duels between Scuds and Patriots can be seen without ever wandering far from the well-tended palms, and there's a bomb shelter. It has about as much impregnability and proximity as you're going to get from a hotel in Saudi Arabia right now.
Pick the right hotel, and you don't even have to leave your room to cover the war. Look at Peter Arnett, Bernard Shaw and John Holliman in the Al-Rashid, watching the bombs and missiles come down and the antiaircraft fire go up over Baghdad on the first night of the Persian Gulf War, feeling the windows shake, listening to the explosions. Their reporting may be the most famous hotel-room war correspondence in history. And you can get a drink in Iraq.
When the Chinese sent the tanks into Tiananmen Square, journalists watched some of the chaos from hotel rooms. At night in Saigon, the roof of the Caravelle Hotel featured second-rate French food and a view of artillery fire on the horizon -- sort of like heat lightning but more jittery, like an electrical fire. Reporting stories from your hotel is an ancient custom in journalism, like interviewing the cabdriver on the way in from the airport. Even before World War II it was so ancient that Evelyn Waugh satirized it in "Scoop," a novel about war correspondents.
One of them is the fabulous Wenlock Jakes. "When he turns up in a place you can bet your life that as long as he's there it'll be the news center of the world. Why, once Jakes went out to cover a revolution in one of the Balkan capitals. He overslept in his carriage, woke up at the wrong station, didn't know any different, got out, went straight to a hotel, and cabled off a thousand-word story about barricades in the streets, flaming churches, machine guns answering the rattle of his typewriter as he wrote, a dead child, like a broken doll, spreadeagled in the deserted roadway below his window -- you know." Soon, the city was full of reporters who didn't see any revolution but didn't dare to contradict the great Jakes, either. "So they chimed in too. Government stocks dropped, financial panic, state of emergency declared, army mobilized, famine, mutiny -- and in less than a week there was an honest to God revolution underway, just as Jakes had said. There's the power of the press for you."
Maybe some day there could be tours of old war correspondents' hotels the way there are tours of old soldiers' battlefields. The old correspondents could go to the Ritz in Paris, where Hemingway fired six rounds from a German pistol into the toilet in his room. No one has explained what Papa was seeking with that attitude -- a great writer, a lousy war correspondent. There would be the Thousand Elephants in Laos, the Intercontinental in Managua, the Commodore in Beirut, even the St. James in Grenada, another great old colonial pile where the management had hardly spread out the mattresses in the lobby for all the war correspondents before the story was over. But a hell of a hotel -- in the center of town like all the old colonial piles. With a bar. And you could watch the Jeeps drive past with their M-60 machine guns, while thousands cheered.
One of the greatest of the old colonial piles was the Phnom, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, rotten with both luxury and desolation, the full romance. Maybe this was why the wife of the television cameraman decided she'd better fly in to be with her husband.
Every morning you would see them having breakfast by the pool. The Phnom was the right hotel. The French had built it with wonderful thick walls that kept out the heat when times were good and kept out the rockets when times were bad. Times were getting bad when the cameraman's wife arrived at the Phnom. The Khmer Rouge were closing in, although they were far enough away that the waiters at the Phnom still wore starched linen jackets and people hadn't started thinking about the pool as drinking water yet.
So the cameraman's wife came to Cambodia to be with him while he photographed the war. That was his job, and like any other husband he went to it after breakfast every day. He would say goodbye to his wife and get in one of the Mercedeses that lined up in the driveway, and he'd ride off to get footage of the war. The Mercedeses were always air conditioned and they had sound systems that always seemed to be playing "Bridge Over Troubled Water." They would swing out of the hotel driveway and in a while the cameraman would see columns of smoke and then the refugees coming down the road, and then the bodies, and there would be the sound of a firefight, oddly furious and languid at the same time. Sometimes an old T-38, a propeller plane, would come down to strafe, flying with impossible slowness over the palm trees. It all seemed like part of the wonderful service at the hotel, every convenience for the working war correspondent. There was a point where the driver wouldn't drive any further, of course. If the cameraman wanted to shoot the combat he would have to get out of the Mercedes and walk down the road.
The next morning you would see the cameraman and his wife having breakfast again by the pool, until one day she wasn't there. She had left, word had it, gone home. The pool was nice, the jackets were starched, the walls of the Phnom were thick, but she'd gone home. Word had it too that as soon as she got home she filed for divorce. As with everything else in Cambodia at that time, nobody knew for sure, but like the hotel itself, it made a good story.