Neil Davis covered conflict in South East Asia for over twenty years. In Vietnam he usually went out with the South Vietnamese – he thought he should he should cover it from their viewpoint, it was their war, a civil war.
He was always at the battle front and always brought back enduring images of the full horror and barbarity of war for the world to see, the new world that brought television to our homes.
Neil was known as many things, a great guy, a true ladies man, honourable, honest and most of all modest about his achievements. In the tradition of Damien Parer, Neil worked as a one man band. Unknown to many, Neil was also a great philanthropist. He also claimed to be a non-smoker.
Ironically, after surviving so much war, he and his soundman Bill Latch, while filming for NBC were killed filming an attempted coup on the streets of Bangkok. Gary Burns who was with them somehow survived and on the camera tape is seen dragging his best friend’s body away from the shooting.
‘SEPERATIONS OF NEIL’
It must have been in the foyer/bar/restaurant of The Constellation, L’Hotel on Samsen Thai Boulevard that runs towards Wattay airport in Vientiane, the capital of Laos.
It must have been before lunch since I had a demi pension, a regular three course meal at the venue in town. A new cheerful bloke was there with the regular lunch time o’booze stringers. Tousled, blond, almost baby like. G’day and that strine twang and a firm handshake. I’m Neil, ABC outta Singapore. Beers were consumed in the deckchair lounges on the monsoon ditch side of the patio.
Days later he collared me for a beer, his Filmo on the table; I had just finished my U.S.AID day. He’d caught a social problem, one of the local varieties that reoccurred since the local ladies had a solution by chewing ‘no sweat pills’ – negating all medication. I had gone past the 4th cycle and a French cartoonist had imported ‘the cure’. Myth now has it that I sold the pharma off a poncho in Vientiane evening market clad in a bowler hat.
Neil always paid for the first meal, after that whenever we met, I always had a carton of Marlboro’s for him – remember he never smoked.
Strange degrees of separation. Ten years later the now love in my life, meets Neil at the same piece of nostalgia, The Constellation. Laos is about to fall to the communists. The war is almost over.
Fast forward another decade and I’m staying at Neil’s putting together new sorties to Vietnam 10 years after liberation. Neil is engineering peace and media breakthroughs. It is the start of ‘Doi Moi’ – opening. Neil is murdered a year later along with his sound man Bill Latch.
Another decade passes. We return to Bangkok to thrash out another IndoChina quest. We end up with Neil’s tapes, including the tape from the camera that filmed his own death. The tapes had been ditched, like Sean Flynn’s stuff in New York. Neil’s tapes were rescued by that great kiwi cameraman Derek Williams.
The tape has become a virtual shrine in our Windsor home. Even dug up these wacky frames of you and us, then and now.
I was in Bangkok and saw Derek, Mark and Heather – they gave me the tape out of your camera, in fact all your tapes, they had been thrown into a garbage skip and rescued by them – shit, Neil, I didn’t know you were dead mate! What a tape, only you could have filmed your own death, Bill Latch’s struggle to survive and Burnsy’s shock and distress. You should have won a bloody Pulitzer.
Took me a while to watch it – tough footage, but something you were always good at – moving people by showing them the pointless and inane barbarity of war. I suppose that’s why it was so tough to watch, a pointless, tin-pot coup, over by midday and you guys the only casualties. I watched the tank firing on the radio station and then saw the gun turn on you, Bill and Burnsy. What the hell was that about?
Well mate, a lot’s happened since then and I wonder what you’d make of it all today. There’s even a show called “DATELINE” that works the way you always did. One person doing camera, writing, stand-up, editing, lighting and audio. Only difference is now that it’s all digital, edited out of a briefcase, up linked to a satellite by a thing called a ‘sat phone’, relayed to the network and broadcast before you’ve finished sending.
Oh, there is one big difference though – they’ve started this thing where if it’s footage showing conflict, the newsreader says “warning, some viewers may find this offensive!” It’s a mother mate, after all this time you’d have thought someone would have realized by now that war is what it is – offensive!!
Anyway, you’ve missed a few and man could they have done with you there. Where to start?
Well, ‘The Wall’ came down in Berlin at the end of ’89. Known by the media scrum as the ‘end of communism tour’. It was the real “Domino Theory” in action. After Berlin it was Hungary, Romania etc etc. You will remember though that a guy called Saddam Hussein was at war with Iran and that he had been ‘tooled up’ by America, well that ended in 1990 and the good ol’ U.S.of A forgot to get the weapons back, so Hussein decided to carry on to Kuwait and claim all that oil for himself!
The King of Kuwait phoned President Bush I (we have Bush II now) and the US troops were there before he put the phone down! Must have thought “what kept you?”
So the US cavalry arrived, en masse (about 500,000) of them and were put in a holding pattern in Saudi Arabia. Mind you this gave them time to set up ‘Golden Arches’, ‘Pizza Hut’, TV and radio stations and an Olympic pool for the male and female troops to lounge around half naked in their ‘host’ Islamic country! That went down well – was particularly noted by a rich native Saudi called Osama Bin Laden – but more on him later.
Australia as always was there – we turn up for every war. Brown nosing is still a policy! In fact the HMAS Adelaide fired its first shot in anger since Vietnam over the ‘Alwasilli’, a cargo ship from Iraq – it was like the USS Maddox all over again! So lots of threats from America about Saddam withdrawing or else – it was ‘or else’ and on January 17th ’91 America started invading and bombing.
Now, if there is anything that America learnt about going to war from its Vietnam experience, it was NEVER let the press run free again! So they came up with this baffling ‘press pool’ system – except half the media in the world now are freelancers. The Pentagon even has its own ‘show biz’ department now – to help with films that put them in a good light! Well, these guys have obviously never seen a reporter or a snapper trample over wounded to get on a chopper to beat the opposition back to ‘file’ first! So we basically saw nothing until the end – and the end was called ‘The Highway of Death’. Thousands of Saddams cannon fodder trying to retreat. All those pumped up troops who hadn’t been able ‘to have a go’ were given carte blanche by their magnificent leader, Barry McCaffrey and they gave them hell. Not a pretty sight.
You’ll love this bit though – Peter Arnett,(now dubbed forever, ‘Baghdad Pete’) then working for CNN and his producer, a guy straight from central casting – safari suit, kefir, cigarette holder and leather goggles – he looked like Rommel and is now known as Rommel – arranged with Saddam to be the only journalists allowed to stay during the bombing. It was like a bloody telethon. We watched the missiles being launched, cut to a ‘colour’ piece while it was traveling and then cut back to Peter and Rommel as it arrived! Magnificent mate, you’d have loved it!!! It has since been made into a book and movie – “Reporting the war from Ground Zero”.
It was all about the oil fields, so once they secured those, even though they had all had the shit blown out of them, it looked like an oily ‘Dante’s Inferno’ or Hue after Tet – the US was out of there. Leaving Saddam to tell his people that he’d won. Small footnote to that escapade, the US asked the Kurds to rise up against Saddam and they would help them. Somehow that got lost in translation and 2 million Kurds ended up on the side of a sheer mountain covered in snow, freezing to death. They obviously had never heard the phrase ‘cut and run’.
During all of this Europe exploded. The former Yugoslavia is now six countries, almost as complicated as the eight factions in the Lebanon but the reasons the same – intolerance – of religion, of ethnicity, of whatever. In fact they coined a new phrase, ‘ethnic cleansing’. Something you’d relate to after Cambodia. There were Christians killing Muslims, Muslims killing Christians and young guys steamed out of their mind on slivovitz and speed killing just about anyone. Especially the media. Meanwhile the rest of the world did nothing and the UN stood by saying “it’s not our mandate” – to save people that is. Who’d have thought it – Europe all over again, except instead of gas chambers, it was mass graves, burning families alive in their homes, axe beheadings in filthy cellars and starving men and boys in concentration camps.
This went on for nearly a decade – at one point a ceasefire was drawn up and Australia’s Brigadier John Wilson was brought in as an observer, at its peak there were 300 violations a day! The UN is still there!
During all of this – Cambodia, the place you loved so much. Where you went back to your flat after Pol Pot and found mail still in your letter box. The border you were traveling to on the day you got killed, to go and meet up again with An Veng, your soundman who had managed to somehow survive the killing fields. Well the UN arrived with an Australian as head of mission, John Sanderson and 16,000 troops to try and sort out the mess and have elections. It was called UNTAC (United Nations Transitional Authority Cambodia), and there were almost as many media present. They tried to restore law and order and hold elections with all parties vying for power. The UN were trying to disarm the KR, deal with millions of UXO and landmines, contributing countries setting up their own ‘autonomous regions’ and a Bulgarian unit that consisted of guys who had been let out of jail if they were willing to go to Cambodia! Twenty political parties registered for the election – the result being that two parties sharing power, one of them an old KR sympathizer!! But according to the UN it was a resounding success, which in terms of ‘justice and governance’ it was, but the story continues. The first God of the peaceful nation now is no longer Buddha but Honda.
In ’92 we had Somalia. The usual, warlords, famine etc. On December 9th the US cavalry landed, it was like DaNang all over again. So much publicity that when Special Forces landed in the early hours of the morning, they were lit up like a lighthouse by the waiting camera crews. All broadcast live by CNN! The marines stormed houses, roughed up anyone that looked suspicious and then flew off with the soles of their feet dangling from Black Hawk helicopters – the biggest insult you can give a Somali is to show him the sole of your foot. It all ended badly with two Black Hawks down, dead airmen dragged through the streets and America resorting once again to the ‘cut and run’. By the way, a Black Hawk makes a Huey stand still and packs the punch of an A4.
What do you reckon so far Neil?
August ’93 – beautiful rain-forested country, Rwanda, where they were trying to cut a deal for a joint Hutu-Tutsi government. Well to cut a very long story short, America didn’t have the stomach for it after Somalia and after rebels killed the Prime Minister, the Hutu’s went on a rampage with machete’s and hacked 900,000 people to death in 90 days. The pictures were awesome. Beyond heartbreaking and no one did a thing. A French Canadian UN General was an absolute fucking hero. 240 UN personnel and that was it. Unfortunately they had no oil. The American President at the time, Bill Clinton did apologize 18 months later for not doing anything, so I suppose that made it alright then.
After that was Haiti and Guatemala – more of the same, before we headed back to Europe, Kosovo. More ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Albanian Kosovar’s. This time Bill Clinton had his hands full trying to ‘damage control’ the fact that he had been indulging in oral sex in the hallowed Oval Office with a young intern, so the plight of a million people were not exactly at the forefront of his mind. That was ’99 Neil, so you won’t be surprised to know that we ended the 20th century the same way we started it – watching thousands of displaced persons walking – to God knows where.
Now back to those troops sunbathing in Saudi Arabia in ’90-’91. Well you’ll remember how the US gave the Mujahideen in Afghanistan weapons to oust the Russians in the early 80’s? Most of the weapons available on the black market – giving the US ‘plausible deniability’ – well eventually they gave them what they wanted, ‘stingers’, that could take out a Russian helicopter in one hit. It was all over Rover for Boris and they had their own ‘cut and runski’. Only problem, like Iraq, America forgot to get any of the weapons back, so after another ‘cut and run’, the poor Afghans were ripe for take-over by extremist warlords, called the Taliban who had a very strange agenda. Their war was financed by opium, no music, no photographs, no school or work for females, full burquas for women and full beards for men!”
Supporting all of this madness was one Osama Bin Laden and he decided now was the time to remind us of lots of things – what some might call ‘Payback’. Firstly, the desecration of Saudi soil and in general what he felt was the total disrespect for the followers of Islam. Mate, it was unbelievable, awesome and the most documented event in history. On September 11th 2001, his foot soldiers hijacked four commercial jetliners in the States and flew two of them into the World Trade Centre buildings, one into the Pentagon and the other was heading for the White House before the passengers hijacked the hijackers and it crashed in the woods in Pennsylvania. The whole world is now covered in CCTV so the footage of those two aircraft flying into the WTC’s was as unbelievable to watch as it was when they came down. They imploded like a controlled demolition. Nearly 3,000 people killed right there in downtown New York. Chaos, panic, closed skies (except George Bush II let the Saudi’s fly out – go figure that one) and blame flying every which way. The FBI had been informed about these Middle Eastern guys who wanted to learn how to fly planes, but they didn’t want to know how to land or take-off! Every photographer in the world seemed to be in NY that day and the images looked like a war zone. In fact it was a war zone.
So Bush II commits troops to Afghanistan to oust the Taliban and kill OBL. First though, a bit of carpet bombing to soften up the peasants. You would remember how well that worked in Vietnam and Cambodia – WHAM (winning hearts and minds). Well instead of the people crossing over to the VC or the KR, these poor bastards had to cross the Hindu Kush in winter. American Special Forces had a few problems on one of their first missions, 13 killed and had to be rescued by Australian SAS – oh, also some CIA guys called in some bombing runs on their allies the Northern Alliance.
Bush then decided that who he really wanted was Saddam Hussein because he still had those weapons of mass destruction that his daddy had given him.
This must all be sounding very familiar to you mate. I just read that ‘Iraq is like Vietnam on crack’ and that he has opened up a can of worms that he will never get the lid back on. Vietnam was a cake walk compared to this, all they wanted was their country back – George Bush II (who makes Ronald Reagan look like Einstein) along with Australia’s John Howard and UK’s Tony Blair has succeeded in turning the WHOLE Islamic world against us, they train up as suicide bombers, specializing in crowded places with the promise that they will go to heaven and 47 virgins will be there to meet them! In fact “Jihad is the new Haj” and “RPG’s are the new worry beads” – you heard it here first!
So we now have Gulf War II and it’s into its third year and the troops are dying by the dozens every day. Forty five journalists have been killed and after the dismal failure of the first Gulf wars ‘press pool’, the media now have something called ‘embed’ – which really means ‘in bed’. More media there at the beginning than troops, but all we saw were a bunch of guys on the back of Humvees surrounded by a lot of sand! In fact a car load of French and Italian journos beat the Americans into Baghdad – they were promptly banged up until the cavalry arrived! So going back to the lessons learnt – the policy is not only no dead Iraqi bodies but also no coverage of dead US personnel coffins either.
Don’t know about anyone else, but the only dead Iraqi’s I’ve seen are Saddam Hussein’s sons, oh and there was a little boy called Ali who had both arms and legs blown off by American bombing, not to mention losing all his family. They didn’t leave much of Ali to go around for all the media present. Everyone wanted a piece of him. First for a ‘live to air’ broadcast, then for a ‘whatever happened to’ piece, followed by ‘the follow up’ – as in how grateful is little Ali for all this publicity we’ve been giving him!!
All we need now are the words “give us another 100,000 troops and we’ll finish the job” or “there’s light at the end of the tunnel”. The word ‘quagmire’ is starting to appear though.
So before I close mate, some good news or some ‘bullet point’ updates:
Knowing your love of all things new in the gadgetry department, this is called an ‘e-mail’. In fact everything begins with ‘e’.
Nate (Thayer) eventually found Pol Pot in ’97. He and Dave McKaige filmed him at a ‘show’ trial – then he suicided. Court case still going on over ‘footage rights’! Now Cambodians go to what is left of his grave at Anlong Vieng to pray for lucky lottery numbers.
Tim (Page) found out what happened to Sean Flynn and Dana Stone and it wasn’t good. They survived nearly 18 months capture by the KR and Louise (Dana’s wife) died in 2001, but never stopped believing that he would come home one day.
Derek, Heather and Mark opened “AsiaWorks” in Bangkok and are doing fantastic business. There is an award in your honour. Yours and Bill’s picture sits over the bar at the FCCT.
Your organization of the tenth anniversary of the Vietnam War was followed with a twentieth, twenty fifth and now we have just had the thirtieth. Although the numbers turning up for each reunion are depleting every year.
Eddie Adams (shooting of VC suspect image) is no longer with us and neither is Donald Wise – the only man who could wear a cravat into battle!
‘Boy Swine’ (John Swain) is working at The Sunday Times in UK, still writing magnificent pieces that bring the subjects plight right to your breakfast table and after surviving Cambodia, capture in Ethiopia, an extremely close call in Timor and an ‘interesting’ situation in Afghanistan – snappers must surely tremble in their boots when they hear they are being sent of with him!!!
Doddy (Mark Dodd, Reuter’s bureau chief in Phnom Penh for five years) is working for Rupert Murdoch in Perth and writing a book on the last Pearl Lugger!
Al Rockoff is still alive, still fighting over his portrayal by John Malkovich in “The Killing Fields” and has announced that no-one will see his pictures till he’s dead!!
Joe Galloway wrote a book called “We Were Soldiers Once and Young” and had it made into a movie by Mel Gibson.
Burnsy (Gary Burns) now has his own network! “Burns Broadcasting” – lots of horses and all under starters orders!
Young Australian cameramen and women are doing what they do because of you and they are doing it well. An extraordinary amount of them hailing from Tasmania – David Brill, Harry Burton. Some of them at great cost. An Australian even won the Robert Capa Award this year! In fact Page even got one, he’s living in Australia now and the immigration minister thought it was a ‘Warrick Capper’ and that he was a footballer! Page and Horst Faas collaborated on a book that Tim concepted called “REQUIEM”, it’s a tribute to all the still photographers killed in Indochina’s wars from ’45-’75 – who’d have thought that! The ex-Hitler youth and doped out wild child! It’s acknowledged as the ultimate book on the Vietnam War and is on permanent display in HCMC – they were even given “Cultural Hero of the Revolution” medals!!!!
Anyway Neil, what would you make of it all now? Everything goes full circle. You inspired in the same tradition that inspired you. The next generation is reading “My War Gone by I Miss It So” and “War Junkie” the way we read “Dispatches” and “Page after Page”. In fact mate, Tim Bowden wrote a cracker of a book about you – “One Crowded Hour”. Last decade or so the big phrase has been “Carpe Diem” – “Seize the Day”. Mate, you were always much hipper and switched on and to read that every one of your diaries was inscribed:
Sound, sound the clarion, fill the fife,
Throughout the sensual world proclaim,
One crowded hour of glorious life
Is worth an age without a name.
Mate, as always you found a way to say it all. Know that you are tuned in and in Sydney on September 9th, your 20th anniversary; there is a bash for you at the NSW Art Gallery. So we’ll fill your glass and light one up for you – that is if you haven’t given up.