Born November 13, 1934
Riverton, New Zealand
Controversial journalist who broadcast the first coalition air strikes of the 1991 Persian
Gulf War live from a Baghdad hotel
"I knew that interviewing Saddam Hussein in the middle of this war was going to be controversial."
Peter Arnett in Live from the Battlefield: From Vietnam to Baghdad—35 Years in the World's War Zones.
Journalist Peter Arnett has reported on more than a dozen wars during his long career. But he is probably best known for his dramatic live coverage of the first U.S. air strikes against Baghdad, Iraq, during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Arnett and his colleagues Bernard Shaw and John Holliman, who became known as the "Boys of Baghdad," faced great personal risk in order to broadcast the start of the war live from their hotel room. Their reports on the first U.S. bombing raids aired on the Cable News Network (CNN) a full half-hour before American military leaders officially announced that the war had begun.
Arnett remained in Iraq throughout the 1991 war and provided controversial reports about the conflict's effect on the Iraqi people. He resumed his controversial role during the 2003 Iraq War, when he returned to Baghdad to report on the U.S.-led invasion. After criticizing the American war plan in an interview that appeared on Iraqi television, Arnett was fired from his job.
Adventurous young man becomes a journalist
Peter Gregg Arnett was born in Riverton, New Zealand, on November 13, 1934, the second of three sons born to Eric Lionel Arnett and Jane (Gregg) Arnett. Arnett spent his childhood in Bluff, a small town on the southern coast of New Zealand that had once been a home port for many whaling ships. Although few whales remained by the time Arnett was a boy, he often saw seals and penguins along the shore.
Arnett's parents placed a high value on education, so they sent their sons away to an exclusive private boarding school, the Waitaki Boys High School. Arnett earned his high school diploma, but he was expelled from the school for breaking its rules against dating before he completed his college-preparatory classes.
In the early 1950s Arnett embarked on a career as a journalist. He started out working as a local reporter for newspapers in New Zealand, including the Southland Times in Invercargill and the Standard in Wellington. "I covered my share of cat shows, backyard brush fires, minor sports events and lots of anniversaries and committee meetings of the most obscure organizations," he recalled in his memoir Live from the Battlefield.
In 1958 the adventurous young man traveled to Southeast Asia as a tourist. Arnett enjoyed the atmosphere so much that he ended up staying for several years. He found a job as an associate editor for Bangkok World, an English-language newspaper in Thailand. In 1961 he became a Southeast Asia correspondent for the Associated Press (AP), a wire service that sells stories to newspapers and magazines across the United States.
Wins Pulitzer Prize for Vietnam War coverage
In 1962 Arnett accepted an assignment to cover the Vietnam War. This conflict pitted the Communist nation of North Vietnam and its secret allies, South Vietnamese Communists known as the Viet Cong, against the U.S.-supported nation of South Vietnam. (Communists believe in a system of government where the nation's leaders are selected by a single political party that controls all aspects of society. Private ownership of property is eliminated and government directs all economic production. The goods produced and accumulated wealth are, in theory, shared relatively equally by all. All religious practices are banned.) North Vietnam wanted to overthrow the South Vietnamese government and reunite the two countries under one Communist government. But U.S. government officials worried that a Communist government in Vietnam would increase the power of the Soviet Union and threaten the security of the United States. In the late 1950s and early 1960s the U.S. government sent money, weapons, and military advisors to help South Vietnam defend itself.
Arnett arrived in Vietnam at a time when American involvement in the conflict was increasing rapidly. Though he knew that covering a war could be dangerous, he also believed it would give him an opportunity to prove himself as a journalist. "I wondered whether I had the courage to swim in those turbulent waters or match the legendary exploits of the foreign correspondents I had read about," he noted in his memoir. In 1965 President Lyndon Johnson sent American combat troops to join the fight on the side of South Vietnam. But deepening U.S. involvement in the war failed to defeat the Communists. Instead, the war turned into a bloody stalemate that became increasingly unpopular among citizens of the United States.
Arnett filed numerous reports from battlefields across Vietnam over the next few years. Like many other American reporters, he was sometimes criticized by U.S. government officials for presenting grim facts about the war and its effect on American soldiers and the Vietnamese people. Though some of his stories were controversial, Arnett claimed that he had an obligation to report what he saw. "From the beginning of the war to the end I looked at Vietnam as a news story, not a crusade for one side or the other," he said in Live from the Battlefield. "I believed that gathering information was a worthwhile pursuit, and truth the greatest goal I could aspire to."
The U.S. government withdrew the last American troops from Vietnam in 1973. Two years later North Vietnam captured the South Vietnamese capital city of Saigon to win the war. Fearing for their safety, most American journalists and many South Vietnamese people fled from the city as the North Vietnamese troops approached. But Arnett decided to remain in Saigon to cover the historic event. "Because I was in Vietnam at the beginning, I felt it was worth the risk to be there at the end to document the final hours," he explained in his memoir.
The Vietnam War helped establish Arnett's reputation as a daring and resourceful journalist. He earned several awards for his coverage of the conflict, including the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in 1966 and the George Polk Memorial Award from the Overseas Press Club in 1970.
Broadcasts live from Baghdad during the Persian Gulf War
Arnett left Vietnam following the fall of Saigon in 1975. For the next few years he traveled around the United States and the world to report on a wide range of subjects for the Associated Press. He left AP in 1981 after twenty years of service in order to join CNN, a new television network dedicated to providing continuous twenty-four-hour news coverage. Arnett began his new career as CNN's White House correspondent, but he soon found himself longing for the excitement of reporting from the world's war zones. He covered a series of conflicts in Central America, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East over the next few years.
On August 2, 1990, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein (see entry) had ordered his military forces to invade the neighboring country of Kuwait. Hussein argued that Iraq had a historical claim to Kuwait's territory. He also wanted to control Kuwait's oil reserves and to gain access to Kuwait's port on the Persian Gulf. Countries around the world condemned the invasion and demanded that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein immediately withdraw his troops from Kuwait. Many of these countries then began sending military forces to the Persian Gulf region as part of a U.S.-led coalition against Iraq. In November 1990, the United Nations Security Council established a deadline of January 15, 1991, for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait or face war.
During the fall of 1990, journalists from around the world rushed to the Persian Gulf region to cover the military buildup and possible war. Arnett was working as a CNN correspondent in Jerusalem, Israel, at this time. Network executives initially asked Arnett to remain there and cover the war from Israel. But Arnett was eager to go to the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, where he could be in the middle of the action. As the UN deadline approached, many foreign journalists decided to leave Iraq for their own safety. A number of CNN reporters and technical support crew also chose to return home. But the network remained committed to covering the war from Baghdad if possible. CNN officials asked Arnett to go to Baghdad to replace some of the departing staff members. He arrived in Iraq on January 11, 1991, just four days before the UN deadline.
CNN news anchorman Bernard Shaw was already in Iraq, waiting for permission to interview Hussein. CNN correspondent John Holliman was there as well, along with producer Robert Wiener. Arnett and his colleagues established a base of operations at the fancy Al Rasheed Hotel in downtown Baghdad. Arnett knew that Baghdad would be a major target for coalition bombing once the war began, but he felt confident that the U.S. military would not target the hotel. He decided to remain in Baghdad and try to provide live coverage of the start of the war.
When Iraq failed to withdraw its troops from Kuwait by the UN deadline, the U.S.-led coalition launched a series of air strikes against Baghdad on January 17. Arnett, Holliman, and Shaw provided live coverage of the bombing from the ninth floor of the Al Rasheed Hotel. They used a special high-quality voice transmission link to report the action to CNN headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. The reporters allowed TV viewers around the world to watch and listen as explosions shook the hotel and lit up the sky behind them. It marked the first time that a major American military action had been broadcast live on television. This dramatic coverage fascinated people around the world and turned Arnett and his colleagues into celebrities.
War reports create controversy
Arnett stayed in Iraq for the remainder of the Persian Gulf War. Iraqi officials gave him access to many sites that had been damaged by coalition bombs. Unlike his early reports from the Al Rasheed Hotel, Arnett's later reports were all cleared by Iraqi censors. Some people criticized Arnett for reporting under these conditions and felt that he could not present an objective (unbiased) view of the war. As a result, some of Arnett's stories from Iraq created controversy. One such report concerned a visit to an industrial plant that had been destroyed by U.S. air strikes. Iraqi officials claimed that the factory had produced powdered milk for babies, but U.S. military leaders said that it had made biological weapons.
U.S. Military Censorship of the Press
The Persian Gulf War marked the first major international military conflict in the age of satellite communications. Journalists planned to use this new technology to bring live reports of the action to television viewers around the world. They succeeded in dramatic fashion during the first coalition air strikes against the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, which were broadcast live on CNN by Peter Arnett and others.
As the war progressed, however, reporters found their activities restricted by U.S. military authorities. The Department of Defense claimed that the restrictions were necessary to maintain the secrecy of coalition strategy and protect the troops from undue risks. American officials also claimed that unchecked TV coverage of the war could create opposition in the United States and around the world.
For these reasons, U.S. military leaders decided to conduct the war largely outside of the view of journalists. They restricted reporters' access to the troops and prevented the media from traveling to combat areas. Most journalists were forced to participate in "pool" reporting. This meant that they depended on briefings by U.S. military officials as their main source of information about the progress of the war. The military briefings tended to focus on the positive aspects of the war, such as the bravery of American soldiers or the successful use of high-tech weaponry. Although the pool reporters were allowed to share the stories of the few journalists who were allowed to witness the fighting, these stories were routinely read and changed by military censors.
Although many journalists resented the restrictions, most ended up accepting them in order to do their jobs. After all, reporters who defied the restrictions and tried to operate independently often lost their press credentials. Some critics claimed that the media thus became a part of the U.S. military's public relations effort and reported only what the Department of Defense wanted the world to know. They claimed that media coverage of the war glossed over the boredom and unhappiness felt by some American troops in the Gulf, for example, and rarely talked about the devastating effects of coalition bombing on Iraqi civilians (people not involved in the war, including women and children).
Arnett remained in Baghdad during the war, so his reports were subject to censorship by Iraqi authorities rather than American authorities. But he still came under criticism from U.S. government officials for reporting on the damage caused by coalition air strikes. Like many of his colleagues, Arnett resented the U.S. military's attempts to control media coverage of the Persian Gulf War. He believed that continuing advances in communications technology would make the censorship issue even more important in the future. "The battle I see today is an attempt by some to restrict the technological advances we've made and restrict our coverage in future crises involving American troops," he stated in the New York Times. "Live cameras are going to be on the battlefield. It's going to be a matter of how the military works with them."
Sources: Ridgeway, James. The March to War. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1991.
After touring the plant on January 23, Arnett broadcast a report that supported the Iraqi government's claims. "I gave details of what I had seen and quoted officials as saying it was the only source of infant formula for Iraqi children," he noted in his memoir. "I had seen no evidence that the factory had been used for any other purpose." The following morning, U.S. leaders attacked Arnett's report as well as his credibility. "I tuned into the BBC [British Broadcasting Corporation] at daybreak, and heard White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater call me a liar," he recalled in Live from the Battlefield. "The president had watched my report on the baby milk plant and, Fitzwater said, they were not pleased. He said the installation was a 'production facility for biological weapons.' Fitzwater claimed that the infant formula production at the installation was a front; he described CNN as 'a conduit [channel] for Iraqi disinformation [lies].'"
A few days later, Arnett was granted a personal interview with Hussein. "I knew that interviewing Saddam Hussein in the middle of this war was going to be controversial," he acknowledged in his memoir. "Those who had already criticized CNN's decision to stay in Baghdad and were angry that we had chosen to show the results of the allied bombing would be further outraged. I vowed to be as uncompromising with Saddam as possible." As Arnett expected, some people criticized him for interviewing Hussein and claimed that he felt sympathy for the enemy.
The Persian Gulf War ended on February 27, 1991, when coalition ground troops liberated Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. Arnett returned to the United States in early March, where he defended his coverage of the conflict. Some people claimed that his reports were one-sided since they had been cleared by Iraqi censors. In fact, hecklers showed up at many of his public appearances and called him anti-American. But Arnett argued that he had fulfilled his duty to CNN and supplied reports of interest to TV viewers worldwide. He said that his job was to gather and present information, not cater to the wishes of the U.S. government or rally support for the American cause.
Arnett continued reporting from the world's war zones during the 1990s, including Haiti, Somalia, and Bosnia. In 1994 he published a memoir about his career as a journalist, Live from the Battlefield: From Vietnam to Baghdad—35 Years in the World's War Zones. In 1998 Arnett was fired from CNN over a controversial report in which he accused the U.S. military of using chemical weapons during the Vietnam War.
Arnett returned to Iraq in 2003 to cover the Iraq War for the NBC television network and National Geographic. He once again became the center of controversy when he agreed to be interviewed on the official Iraqi government television station. In this interview, Arnett provided his analysis of the U.S. war effort. He claimed that the initial American war plan had failed and that U.S. leaders were scrambling to come up with a new plan. "The war plan has failed because of Iraqi resistance," he said, as quoted by CNN.com. "Clearly, the American war planners misjudged the determination of the Iraqi forces."
U.S. government officials criticized Arnett's statements, claiming that he was giving encouragement to the enemy. He was later fired by both NBC and National Geographic. He remained in Iraq, however, to cover the conflict for a British newspaper called the Daily Mirror. Several months later, Arnett expressed no regrets about his controversial statements. "The best weapon of a reporter is the truth," he told the Korea Herald, "and it is desirable for the government and the media to be in a tense relationship."
Arnett married a South Vietnamese woman, Nina Nguyen Thu-Nga, in 1964. They had two children together, Andrew and Elsa, before they eventually divorced. Arnett became a naturalized American citizen in 1986 and remarried in the early 1990s.
Where to Learn More
Arnett, Peter. Live from the Battlefield: From Vietnam to Baghdad—35 Years in the World's War Zones. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994.
"Journalist Visits Korea." Korea Herald, September 20, 2003.
"Peter Arnett: U.S. War Plan Has 'Failed.'" CNN.com, March 30, 2003. Available online at http://www.cnn.com/2003/WORLD/meast/03/30/sprj.irq.arnett/index.html (accessed on April 1, 2004).
"Peter (Gregg) Arnett." Contemporary Authors Online. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center Online. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group, 2003.
Schmitt, Eric. "Five Years Later, the Gulf War Story Is Still Being Told." New York Times, May 12, 1996.