I KNOW IT'S A SHAMEFUL and irresponsible and irresponsible sentiment, but I'd love to be back in Lebanon this week, just for the fun of it.
Of course innocent people are dying and more suffering is being inflicted on a hapless country, and it's terrible. But from the correspondent's point of view, this is a wonderful war.
It's not like the Falkland Islands conflict or the war in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, where the basic sources of information are one-sided briefings hundreds of miles from the action. And it's not like the war between Iran and Iraq, which has been fought over desolate, forbidding terrain in an unpleasant corner of the world.
No, the conflict in Lebanon offers everything a journalist could want: abundant information, easy access to the front lines, the companionship of old comrades, good weather, fine food and an abundance of excellent local wine to wash it down. There's no censorship, it's usually easy to get copy out, the stories get front-page play or extensive air time, and for once in Lebanon's long national nightmare there is no confusion about who is fighting whom.
The press corps in Beirut these days can pity their poor British colleagues with the task force in the Falklands. Rotten weather, navy food and, worst of all, second billing to a new war make that a much less amusing assignment. Besides, unlike the Brits in the Falklands, the correspondents in Beirut have no moral or patriotic obligation to any of the combatants; the only requirment, as it was when I was there during the civil war and the last Israeli invasion, in 1978, is to watch the war and stay alive.
Beirut is dangerous, to be sure, but then Beirut has been dangerous ever since the civil war erupted in 1975. If truth be told, most of the correspondents relish the danger, because it adds a certain piquant charm to the stories they're telling tonight in the bar of the Commodore Hotel.
The hotel itself is part of the story. Run by Palestinian Christians who have good contacts in every faction, it has been spared attack throughout the years of conflict, and usually manages to restore electricity, water and Telex service before any other institution, including what's left of the government.
In the darkest summer of the civil war, 1976, when all Beirut was crippled, the Commodore and the press served each other well: The hotel kept its services going, and we paid our bills directly into the owner's London bank account.
While the Israelis were marching north from the border, the basic drill for the press in Beirut is much the same as it used to be in Saigon: Out of the hotel early in the morning, taxi to the war, visit the bombed villages, interview the refugees, then head back to town in midafternoon for briefings by the various factions. During the civil war, when gasoline was scarce, representatives of the Palestinian news agency Wafa made life easier for the press by coming to the Commodore for the afternoon briefings.
The interviews with the peasants and refugees are usually perfunctory. Most of the correspondents don't speak Arabic, but the real reason is that in this war, unlike El Salvador or Vietnam, the locals have no political importance. These events are not of their making, and they have never had any influence on the outcome.
There are variations, depending on whether the correspondent wants bang-bang or substance. One day last week, Don Cladstrup of CBS got excellent bang-bang just by going up into the control tower of Beirut International Airport -- closed yet again -- and watching Israeli jets strafe refugee camps.
At the same time, The Washington Post's David Ottaway reported that he was being served Turkish coffee by Druze villagers as he sat on a hilltop watching Syrian artillery shelling an Israeli tank column. The New York Times said that reporters on the Beirut- Damascus highway -- hardly more than 15 minutes from the hotel -- saw a Syrian jet fighter shot down, and its pilot bail out. The war in El Salvador could never match that.
By Thursday, it wasn't even necessary to leave town to be as close to the action as any correspondent could want. The Israeli bombings that emptied Beirut's streets recalled the summer of 1976 when random artillery shelling by both sides in the civil war drove most Beirutis underground; but even then there were only a few weeks when communications failed.
Another nice thing about covering the war in Lebanon is that there's little fear of missing news of political developments while out watching the action. Israeli radio broadcasts the news in English several times a day. Damascus radio and the clandestine transmitters of all the Lebanese factions are on the air regularly. And back in Beirut, a crew of Lebanese journalists who have made the conflict a growth industry stands ready to brief the foreign correspondents as they return from the field.
When it's early evening in Beirut, it's only noon in New York and Washington, so there's plenty of time to catch up on the day's developments and swap tales with colleagues before it's necessary to file. And when the copy has gone out, there's still time to order the tournedos at the Relais de Normandie and plan the next day's trip into Lebanon's tormented -- but newsy -- south.
The stories the correspondents write will reflect the tragedy of Lebanon's destruction and the grim potential for a wider conflict. But the stories they tell when it's over will reflect what a good time they had. It's the same feeling of exhilaration that inspired many of these very same journalists to hold a Light at the End of the Tunnel Reunion party, celebrating the good olds days in Saigon, at the Tehran Intercontinental Hotel only days before the fall of the shah.